Beauty in the Beast: Photographer Charles Fréger and the Wilder Men
Updated: Jun 30, 2021
A winter festival performer from Christiansand, Norway, playing a Julebukk, a figure who goes door to door between Christmas and New Year's Day in a masquerade that incorporates elements of caroling and trick or treating. Photograph by Charles Fréger, 2019.
By now, folklore-savvy Americans know about Santa’s dark other, Krampus, who parades the streets of Alpine countries near Christmas menacing and delighting children with his birch rods and sack for carrying away the naughty. But the winter is long and dark and Krampus is only among the first of the frightening festival figures who have entertained and brought together Europeans in rural communities for generations. Christmas comes and goes, but the parade of horribles continues into February and beyond, often attaching itself to the Christian liturgical calendar like all good pagan relics.
Jack in the Green, a traditional May Day figure from Rochester, England, 2019, by Charles Fréger.
French photographer Charles Fréger has captured many of them. In 2012, Fréger’s Wilder Mann; The Image of the Savage, also captured the hearts and coffee tables of those whose concept of beauty was a bit more encompassing than most. Fréger’s book of portraits of monsters, lovingly crafted by locals for annual performances in town squares dotted across the European continent, was unlike anything most Americans had seen before. The general theme of these midwinter festivals is of man transformed into beast only to be captured, tamed and returned to human form, but Fréger’s images show how spectacularly varied is the notion of beast from culture to culture. Men encased in suits of straw, fur and bones. Some whimsical; some downright frightening; all striking in Fréger’s iconic photographs.
Images from Charles Fréger's 2012 Wilder Mann
(Right to left) Ours, or Bear, bear festival, Arles-sur-Tech, Pyrenees-Orientales, France, February; Tschäggättä, (no translation) Lötschental, Canton of Valais, Switzerland, February 2 to Shrove Tuesday; Schnappviecher, or "Snappers," likely from the sound of their chomping jaws, also called Wudulin, Tramin, South Tyrol, Italy; January 7 to Shrove Tuesday; Chiapra, or Goat, carnival of the Liptov region, Shrovetide, Ružomberok, Slovakia.
While it is not possible to completely generalize the many festivals represented by the portraits in Wilder Mann, many of them occur in February when the bonds of winter need breaking and people need to start anticipating the spring. Many of the stylized costumes are meant to conjure the image of the bear, a creature that hibernates in the winter, and whose return is as certain as the return of spring. The Fête de l'Ours, or Festival of the Bears, of Arles-sur-Tech is representative of many of these masquerades and reenacts a widespread folk belief of a bear kidnapping a woman. The stories of the offspring of this pairing can be found in tales collected by the Grimms and other anthologists, and have inspired epic storytelling and sagas in northern Europe. The bear in the festival tries to catch young girls and is "shot" by men playing hunters and then the bear's body returns to life, is shaved and revealed to be a man.
Many of the festivals, though obviously not Christian in origin, occur before the Catholic Lenten season, ending during the day or days before Ash Wednesday, which are named Shrove Tuesday and Shrovetide. Shrove refers to absolution for sins, when Catholics are "shriven" of sin, prior to Lent. As unusual as the Wilder Mann costumes may be, these festivals coincide with and may be thought of as analogous to the better-known Carnival of Brazil, which likewise features masks, costumes and pageantry. It is not by accident that many pagan traditions and festivals coincide with Christian holidays. The Catholic church chose to celebrate its feast days on the existing holidays of pagan Europeans as a means of Christianizing them, which is why so many of the costumed festivals in Fréger's Wilder Mann occur during the Christmas season or in the lead-up to Lent.
After Wilder Mann, Fréger moved onto other projects, but he has never left behind his groundbreaking work documenting the strange festival creatures of the dark months in Europe. He has spent the last two winters in Scandinavia and other countries continuing to photograph these human grotesques. Fréger made himself available recently to discuss his work and answer some of my questions.
I expected Fréger to be a man as interested in folkloric monsters as I was, but the thesis of his work is more challenging, and to me, more fascinating. Fréger sees community as the underlying theme of his work: “To me these are still communities and these masquerades are taking part in places where people just want to be together. The reason why these populations are doing such traditions is not to honor a tradition, but more to be together. And for that reason I find it as interesting as (photographing) a football team. Especially these days, the wish to be together is strong enough and is more valuable than certain religions or beliefs.”
Klausen, a figure associated with Advent, Oberjoch, Bayern, Germany, 2017, by Charles Fréger.
I would add that Fréger’s work seems to have the theme of costumes or clothing that bring people together. Fréger’s work has encompassed the monstrous more than once (his Yokainoshima: Island of Monsters project in Japan documented figures in a similar vein to his wilder men) but Fréger has photographed series of men from various countries in traditional military uniform, people in native cultural garb, performers from the Peking Opera and even majorettes. “Everything I photographed a few years before I started Wilder Mann was very delicate, complex, codified, structured, full of protocol and traditional. I was in (search of) something which was working the same way; it’s really comparable. You can compare one of these groups doing this wilder mann tradition and any of the other groups that I photographed before. It’s really similar in the way people get together. It’s just that here there’s this visual radicality; the landscape connecting with the costume."
Beyond Wilder Mann: Images Since 2012
(Right to Left) Dimonis di Algeida, Majorca, Spain; Wren Boy, Armagh, Northern Ireland, from Wren Day, December 26; the Iltis, or Straw Weasel, Buschwiller, Alsace, France; Máska, Sivas, Crete, associated with Carnival. Images taken by Fréger since the publication of Wilder Mann.
Fréger does not see himself as an anthropologist or ethnographer or as a journalist. He takes the festival performers out of the town centers where the festivals occur to place the wilder men performers in what strikes him as the proper setting, “distancing them from the anachronism” of modern life. His role, he says, is to create the portraits. This said, it seems to me that Fréger’s outings, and the popularity of his book, which has remained in print and is available in five languages, may have led to more festival groups. Fréger said that tourism is a potential driver of some of the events. Many of my searches online for more information about the festivals listed in Wilder Mann have led to travel and tourism websites. I anticipated that Fréger would tell me that he was documenting an ancient phenomenon and that this sort of tradition must be endangered in our modern world, but this is not the case. “They are more appearing than disappearing. There are new groups every year.” Fréger says that some festivals that may have gone out of existence in the last century have also made resurgences. Fréger took many of the photographs shown in this article in the nine years since his Wilder Mann book was published.
Fréger also surprised me by saying that these traditions are as much as or more a part of modern life than recreations of the past. “Tradition is politics. Tradition is about expressing identity.” The young men who frequently play the role of beast and build the costumes grew up with Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. “You can see the influence of heavy metal from the nineties and the eighties.” Fréger said modern costumes are also far more elaborate than historic costumes because they represent the people taking part in the festivals, both performers and, crucially, the audience, without which, the festivals would lose energy and end. "There must be some synergy. Just because you have one mad guy from the village dressing himself like a devil, he needs to have his audience."