“City of Lights, City of Fonts” is a blog and visual diary created by ArtSlant’s Georgia Fee Artist-in-Residence, Ali Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald will explore France’s evolving visual relationship to propaganda, looking deeply at aesthetics of nationalism and politicized otherness. With sketches, writing, and graphic vignettes, she will document fonts, signage, and France's history of drawing as activism.
Last week I discussed my artcrush and birthday-twin Daumier, and this week I’ll continue talking about France’s relationship to caricature a little more in depth.
The 19th century in France was termed “the Age of Gold” for caricature, with more than 350 caricature journals being published over the years. More than half the French population during this time was functionally illiterate, lending imagistic forms of communication mass appeal.
Daumier and the journal “La Caricature,” which I discussed last week, were a big part of this. There was also Grandville, an artist who worked in the “fantastic caricature” oeuvre, placing animal heads on his figures, and illustrating Walter Benjamin’s “The Devil In Paris.”
These drawings did not go without punishment. As discussed last week, both Daumier and his publisher were jailed in the 1830s. Caricatures and satirical drawings threatened the monarchy, which responded (predictably) by restricting press freedoms.
In 1835, the Minister of Commerce Charles Duchâtel declared,
In the late 1800s, caricaturist André Gill was constantly getting into trouble. Continuing with Daumier’s ridicule-through-vegetable thing, he was sent to jail for making a magistrate into a pumpkin. Before being sent to a mental hospital, he pioneered the now standard boardwalk caricature practice of enlarged heads on small bodies. Here’s a cover he did of Charles Darwin:
Towards the end of the 19th century, new press freedoms were enshrined, and then in 1905, secularism or “laïcité” became the law of the land. This separated religious doctrine and ideologies from daily life and policies in France. Both sides of the political spectrum in France still doggedly adhere to and lionize this idea, which has become a kind of “founding myth.” It is sometimes depicted as the fourth principle of France.
Which brings us to Charlie Hebdo.
I’ll admit that I find Charlie Hebdo’s satirical magazine particularly confounding. I didn’t know much about it before the 2015 attacks, but since then, I’ve read a lot about the magazine’s mission, which is to adamantly defend the ideals of laïcité, skewering adherents of any faith. I’ve also read accounts of those who object to the caricatures as well as France’s staid secularism, which some argue needs desperately to evolve in the face of a multi-religious and pluralistic society.
The caricatures splayed across Charlie Hebdo covers are often crude and shocking. They sometimes play on the worst aspects of caricature: those historically used to demean by emphasizing ethnic difference and playing into ideas of minstrelsy.
The editors at Charlie Hebdo try to put into practice the 1968 revolutionary slogan: Il est interdit d’interdire (it is forbidden to forbid), because they believe that not making fun of every group equally would be giving in to extremism.
France’s evolving relationship to politicized drawings is particularly rich. It’s instructive to think of Charlie Hebdo as the natural continuation of La Caricature—of Daumier, Grandville, and Gill’s struggles for the freedom of speech in a restrictive environment. Still, I think it’s okay to be very conflicted about Charlie Hebdo, its post-colonial leanings, and the harmful effects of some of their depictions of France’s most marginalized citizens, namely the French Muslim community.
Below is a Charlie Hebdo cover of Marine Le Pen modeling for John Galliano after he made some anti-Semitic comments in a bar. Note Marine’s traditional southern German dress as a nationalist signifier.
Tags: Illustration GeorgiaFeeResidency Paris City of Lights City of Fonts, drawing