“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.
In an 1890 essay, Henry James said that Honoré Daumier caricatured public life with:
Other people have compared him to Michaelangelo: a lithograph genius of bodily form and social satire.
I’ve always looked at his drawings with awe, startled by the gravity of his visions and their pulsing empathy. The naturalism he achieves seems almost supernatural. It’s mannerist figuration at its finest. Daumier used his considerable talents, both as a painter and as a draftsman to critique systemic social injustice in 19th century France.
This may be redundant considering the above paragraph, but Daumier is a hero to me. I visited his grave in the Père Lachaise Cemetery this week and was informed later that we have the same birthday—a spooky fact I overlooked while at his resting place.
As a caricaturist, Daumier is just the tops. Perhaps his most famous political cartoon is this one of king Louis-Phillipe as Gargantua:
“Gargantua” ran in the satirical illustrated newspaper “Le Caricature” in 1831. The original lithograph even hung in the window of the printing press until Louis-Phillipe ordered the destruction of all copies of this unflattering (and politically effective) portrait.
Daumier was jailed for six months and there was a crackdown on press freedoms by the king. It’s a depressingly familiar tale, but one that shows the immense power of the hand and images to alter perception and topple regimes. This too, functions as a kind of populist propaganda, arguably a “benevolent” one.
Daumier’s caricatures focused on members of the bourgeoisie, like aristocrats, bankers, and supporters of the monarchy. Louis-Phillipe was almost always drawn as some kind of pear:
Daumier reserved a special disdain for lawyers and academics, depicting them with spiteful glee. This one is just titled “The Old Villain.”
His work thankfully avoids the racist, colonialist themes of his contemporaries, perhaps because of his somewhat narrow focus on class issues in France.
The vibrancy and continued relevance of his drawings is surprising in some ways. Political drawings often deal with specific, time-based events and thus tend to live and die in the context in which they are born. Yet Daumier’s work transcends and continues to influence socially-critical artists. In an Art in America interview in 2011, Kara Walker stated:
Next week I’ll talk a little more about the moral complexities of caricature and Charlie Hebdo.
Tags: Illustration GeorgiaFeeResidency Paris City of Lights City of Fonts