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At the intersection of humor and aggression

Nineteenth-century caricature shows how the pen became mightier than the sword

by Emilé Ferris
Projected Shadows (1830), by J. J. Grandville

Despite the worldwide multiplicity of electronic media, recent events illustrate how caricature, a deceptively simple art, still retains its power to antagonize. Today, caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad printed by the Danish press are bringing to the fore suppressed conflict and globalizing it in both debates and violent confrontations. At their most inflammatory, political and satirical cartoons are powerful enough to warrant diplomatic sanctions, death threats, and imprisonment.

As a means of documenting what artists have created at the intersection of humor and aggression, Northwestern University’s Block gallery presents Caricature in London and Paris, 1800-1900, a three-part exhibition of interest to anyone involved in comics, printmaking or drawing. In a recent gallery talk, Hollis Clayson, a Northwestern art history professor under whose direction this exhibition was mounted, explained this particularly rich period of caricature as a time of “extraordinary demographic change and political volatility.”

Caricature in London and Paris is divided into three parts, each on display in a different gallery.

In Philipon’s La Caricature and the Street, in the first of the three galleries, the then-new technique of lithography reveals the importance of street life to the exchange of ideas in post-Napoleonic France. Social inequities are exposed in works such as CJ Travies’s lithograph “The Merry-Making Has Been Significant and the Gaiety Universal” (1832). Sarcasm is directed towards the heaven and hell aspects of 19th-century French life. On the “top-floor” of the print we’re provided a glimpse of upper class existence with all the frivolities of a fancy dress ball. In the level below, people huddle against the cold in a shadow world framed by thick pillars, familiarly referencing the homeless refuge of our own Lower Wacker Drive. In J. J. Grandville’s “Projected Shadows” (1830), a series of surreal shadows reveal the “non-human” or demonic nature of a procession of figures, each of whom seems to personify institutions of French society.

City spaces also provide the artists a backdrop against which they derisively portrayed King Louis-Philippe as La Poire, or “the pear,” which Clayson said means “fathead” or “idiot” in French slang. In retaliation for the fact that the pear was universally adopted as a symbol of political dissent (wax pears were even sold as souvenirs), King Louis-Philippe’s September Laws of 1835 were enacted to restrict criticism of the Monarch and his government. Both Charles Philipon and Honore Daumier suffered periods of imprisonment for the art they published.

According to Clayson, Comic Art: The Paris Salon in Caricature displays how repression forced artists to channel their political criticism through the less obvious vehicle of social satire. On view in the second gallery are a number of famous Daumier prints that use the public event of the Salon as a means to satirize French bourgeois life. Among the pieces in this collection are works of caricature that will be especially interesting to students of art history, with special relevance to those studying such artists as Manet, Courbet and Zola. Many of the caricatures reveal the delight with which society took in publicly satirizing artists for breaking with the norm and insisting on their own individualism. Just as Hollywood celebrities depend upon a symbiotic relationship between a thriving career and the curiosity (and often criticism) of the press, prints in this portion of the exhibit indicate that popular lampooning was likely responsible for elevating these French artists more prominently in the mind of the public.

The final gallery of the exhibition titled Political Currents across the Channel: James Gillray’s Caricatures of France features vivid hand-colored etchings, the majority of which satirize the Napoleonic incursion into Egypt. With his grotesque style, Gillray is the obvious precursor of such comic artists as R. Crumb. In Gillray’s “The Insurrection of the Amphibious Institute” (1799), the plans of intrepid explorers to domesticate crocodiles are frustrated by the amphibians’ insistence on eating the surprised French soldiers. Likewise, in “Theologie à la Turque—The Pale of the Church of Mahomet,” a parade of Egyptians brandish an obelisk-like spike which, it is implied, will be used to sodomize French officers (Clayson pointed out a tiny figure in the background “who happily rubs his rear”). Gillray implies that the notoriously naughty French enjoy what the British satirically view as an introduction of the religion of Egypt into the French soldiers.

Gillray’s work is definitely politically incorrect and his imagery continues to provoke the kind of visceral response which walks the line between fascination and repulsion. Obviously many of the pieces in this collection reflect the racist perceptions of 19th century Britain. Although Egyptians are portrayed as backwards, sodomizing fools, Gillray is even-handed in his bigoted vitriolic indictments and portrays his own people, the British, as equally ridiculous. Much of the art by Gillray illustrates one of caricatures’ most cathartic facets, that of refuting fear by effecting a diminishment of the enemy. Napoleon, the threat of whom sent terror throughout Europe, is here portrayed by Gillray as an unusually miniscule tyrant.

Caricature in London and Paris 1800-1900 reaffirms caricature as the sort of responsive and yet argumentative mirror which can uncover social inequities, ignite discourse and even spark violence. The fact that the word caricature comes from the Italian caricare, meaning “to load,” underscores how these comic images bear a leaden agenda. As in war, the lines of caricature are drawn in aggression, defining the boundaries of battle; they are intended to transform on the page, becoming snares to those being lampooned.

Caricature in London and Paris 1800-1900 at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University runs through March 12.

J. J. Grandville, “Projected Shadows” (1830), in La Caricature, no. 2, November 11, 1830, hand-colored lithograph. Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University

Honoré Daumier, “Free Admission Day—Twenty-Five Degrees of Heat” (1852), from the series Le Public du Salon in Le Charivari, May 17, 1852, lithograph. The Research Library, The Getty Research Institute. 920048 b.1 f.6.5.

August Bouquet, “Could you please draw your filth far from here, little devils!” (1833), in La Caricature, no. 115, January 17, 1833, hand-colored lithograph. Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University.

MARCH 2006