Wednesday, February 20, 2008


The great French artist Honoré Daumier (1808-1879) was an accomplished painter and sculptor. He was best known during his lifetime however, for his satirical black and white lithographs. Sold individually or in subscription periodicals, they took on the foibles of his age. A selection of these, "A Wit Still Sharp: Daumier Turns 200," is on view at the Johnson Museum. The show is small, especially relative to his prolific output. Nevertheless, it is packed with ideas both visual and verbal.

The latter are primarily the contribution of Charles Philipon, publisher of La Caricature and La Charivari, liberal journals Daumier contributed to regularly. Philipon's captions supply an extra measure of wit along with most of the works' titles. Many prints bare traces of their journalistic origins: horizontal fold-lines and text printed on the backs.

Much of the artist's early work satirized the government of constitutional monarch Louis-Phillipe, who reigned from 1830 to 1848. His rule was ostensibly a moderate, reformist one. He promised freedom of the press but this was not carried out consistently. Daumier and his publisher found themselves facing fines and even prison time for their efforts.

The highlight of the show is the 1834 classic La Ventre Législatif (The Legislative Belly), a vicious indictment of the new regime. It assembles government officials Daumier earlier caricatured individually. (Three of these portraits from the previous year are also on view.) In contrast to the detail of the earlier prints, the often grotesque visages of Belly are constructed out of suggestive blocks of tone. The statesmen sit in four rows which surround the semi-circular bit of floor which makes up the foreground. Alternately, they plot together, read papers, doze-off, or stare vacantly into space. In front, right, stands a dark-coated, mop-haired man recognizable from one of the earlier portraits as a Dr. Prunelle. An analogy is made between the corpulence of the leaders, the shape of the chamber, and the greed of the government. (Money-grubbing is also the subject of a sardonic April Fools' print wherein L-P and associate Adolphe Thiers throw coins from a balcony to a stupefied-looking crowd.)

Baissez le rideau, la farce est jouée (Lower the curtain, the farce is over) is from the same year. It shows the same belly-chamber through a sort of window in the center of a beautifully weird, angular composition. We see the rows from the side, above, at greater distance. Obscuring it from above is a curtain; to the right it is fronted by a plump, monstrous clown Louis-Phillipe. He points a baton leftward, where it disrupts the scales of justice held by an allegorical female statue. Baissez recalls the artist's early background in theatre. His father, a glazier, had aspirations as a dramatist and poet.

Legislation passed in 1835 (following attempted regicide) banned political caricature. Daumier turned his satire towards the everyday social life of Paris. Although less joyfully mean-spirited, the resulting pieces show a keen awareness of modern city-life and an increasingly loose and expressive line.

In Cré nom!...(1841), a tattered man slumps against an outdoor wall, complaining that his rain-soaked boots have it better than he does, for at least they are able to drink. The print is hung alongside the only non-lithograph in the show, an intaglio Absinthe Drinker by Manet whose heavily worked shadows and other dark tones are only hinted at in the Daumier.

Daumier mocked the official French art-world, which in his day was dominated by the conservative exhibitions of the Salon. Three pieces here illustrate these shows. Lofty, idealized artworks are juxtaposed against the vulgarity of their viewing audience. Walls loaded with portraits women, probably from classical mythology form the backdrops of two. These are rendered lightly in the sketchiest of lines. The audience below can only understand them in coarse, sexualized terms.

In Triste contenance de la Sculpture...(1857), a nude female statue bears an agitated pose while around her a circle of gentlemen face away obliviously. In contrast to her, they appear formless, lumpy. The caption makes the target clear: a tendency to favor painting over sculpture.

A tout coup l'on perd! (Every throw's a loser!), from 1868, exemplifies Daumier's late return to politics. It alludes to the clouds of war then gathering over Europe in humorously allegorical terms. A crowned woman personifying Europe holds a bag of money in each hand. Squatting down, she aims in the direction of carnival game bearing the coarsely rendered likeness of the Greek god of war, his mouth a black hole. Framing him is the upright section of the contraption; it resembles a gravestone. The loose line-work is impressive, but the lack of tonal variation keeps it from being one of the more visually impressive pieces.

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Blogger Sunil said...

Great read. Thanks for the post.

9:04 AM  

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