July 31, 2012
New exhibition at Stanford's Cantor showcases the art of protest in 19th-century France
Honoré Daumier and his colleagues at the French journal La Caricature skewered the issues of the day from 1830 to 1835. A new exhibition of politically satirical drawings by Daumier and La Caricature at the Cantor Arts Center proves that 180 years later, some jokes never get old.
By Robin Migdol
Honore Daumier's 'Rue Transnonain, le 15 April 1834.' The piece is one of the works included in the Cantor Art Center's new exhibition 'When Artists Attack the King: Honore Daumier and La Caricature, 1830-1835. (Photo: Courtesy of the Cantor Arts Center)
La Caricature was The Colbert Report of 19th-century France.
The weekly Parisian journal may have been printed 180 years ago, but its scathing critique of the French monarchy and government officials has never felt more relevant. On Aug. 1, the Cantor Arts Center will present "When Artists Attack the King: Honoré Daumier and La Caricature, 1830-1835," its first-ever exhibition of its collection of Daumier prints and issues of La Caricature. The exhibition will be on display through Nov. 11.
The exhibition is drawn from the Cantor's existing collection of every issue of La Caricature ever published, 200 Daumier lithograph prints and prints by other La Caricature artists. Lorenz Eitner, former Cantor director, acquired most of the collection during his tenure at the museum from 1963 to 1989.
Elizabeth Mitchell, the Cantor's Burton and Deedee McMurtry Curator of Prints, Drawings and Photographs, said the theme of censorship apparent throughout La Caricature is always relevant, no matter what the time period.
"It's such a rich and complex topic. It's not just art and politics but art and daily life and who gets to say how you represent everyday life," Mitchell said. "This idea of freedom of ideas is always critical, and it seems really important now."
Daumier and his fellow artists at La Caricature aimed their criticism at King Louis-Philippe I and his government, often poking fun at the king's and his officials' physical appearances. One drawing by Daumier's colleague Auguste Bouquet depicts Louis-Philippe as a pear, and another by Daumier shows a printing press operator squashing the king's head in the machinery.
Other drawings portray the government as a theatrical production and the press being literally weighed down by bureaucracy.
Mitchell said La Caricature's rhetoric was a direct response to Louis-Philippe's government, which faced the impossible task of pleasing both the wealthy classes and a public that had begun to demand more power through the new constitutional monarchy system.
"It was this very weird transition of going from a system of ultimate power to having to be accountable to your subjects, and it just wasn't going very well," Mitchell said.
In retaliation for the artists' brutal attacks, Louis-Philippe and his government censored the journal, imposed fines and even imprisoned some of the artists. The battle between La Caricature and the French monarchy played out in the pages of the journal; in one issue, the editors left an entire page blank in order to illustrate to readers how much of it had been censored.
Mitchell said that while only about 500 copies of each issue were printed, the drawings were widely distributed among the public. Looking at the prints, modern viewers can still experience what it was like to see them in their prime.
"You really have a sense of the artist's hand. You can see every line. They have texture," she said. "There are some that are hand-colored, but they're printed in black so most of them have this rich black ink that really feels like someone had just drawn with charcoal or our idea of a crayon. It's very immediate draftsmanship."
In conjunction with the exhibition, the Cantor will host a symposium on art and censorship in November.
Mitchell said that reflected in the 180-year-old drawings are issues – and artistic methods of protesting them – that we still debate and use today. Viewers may be surprised to find how easily they can relate to Daumier and his colleagues' sense of humor.
"There's something very human about that, which I find strangely reassuring," she said. "Time has gone on, technology has improved our lives, but there's something very human in that you can look at something that's 150 years old and just laugh. You don't know the cast of characters, you don't know specifically what they're reacting to – but you get it."
Robin Migdol is a writing intern with the Stanford News Service.