The Art of Satire

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Ask almost any museum-goer who Honore Daumier was and the answer will come predictably: a 19th century French caricaturist whose satirical cartoons ridiculed pompous lawyers and the hypocritical bourgeoisie. This is correct of course. But what is missing here and what a recently opened exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris stunningly reveals is the revolutionary message and immense talent of an eclectic, Renaissance man of the arts who was also an innovative sculptor and painter.

In the first Parisian retrospective since 1934 devoted to this incisive social commentator and pioneering artist, more than 300 works have been gathered from all over the world, including paintings and drawings, many of his most famous prints and--surely the highlight of the exhibition--most of his astonishing sculptured caricatures. They are presented in chronological order, encompassing the entire breadth of his 40-year career, punctuated by a series of themes that obsessed him throughout his lifetime: the theater, artists, circus acrobats.

The exhibition takes off with a series of lithographs ridiculing the bourgeoisie of the Louis-Philippe era, exposing the smugness, greed and stupidity that Balzac described in his Human Comedy (to which Daumier contributed illustrations).

Satire was a means of expression that the artist would turn to again and again during a career that spanned some of the most tumultuous times in 19th century French history, from the demise of the Bourbons to the rise and fall of the July Monarchy, the 1848 revolution and short-lived, utopian Second Republic, Napoleon III's Second Empire and the beginnings of the Third Republic.

Daumier's modest background must have provided ample firsthand experience to fuel his indignation at injustice and given him the natural empathy for the downtrodden and exploited that he manifested throughout his lifetime. The son of a glazier and amateur poet whose literary career in Paris was a dismal failure, Daumier began working at 12 in minor clerical jobs, but this did not stop him from drawing whenever he could. At 20 he renounced the meager security of a steady job for an artistic career. He quickly proved himself to be a superlative draftsman and his first artistic patron began publishing his lithographs in 1830 in the satirical weekly La Caricature, and later in the daily newspaper Le Charivari.

Daumier's acid pen quickly earned him a notoriety that was not without its downside. His 1831 engraving of the bourgeois King Louis Philippe in the guise of an enormous glutton with a pear-shaped head--which became the caricaturist's shorthand for the pudgy Orleanist monarch--landed Daumier in prison for six months. Unchastened and undeterred, he soon followed up by heaping scorn on the entire government with a remarkable collection of 36 unbaked polychrome clay busts he rendered from 1832 to 1835. Portraits of parliamentary worthies, politicians and magistrates whose names don't mean much to posterity, these roughly hewn busts make up a fascinating rogue's gallery of the neither-nor do-nothing Juste Milieu politicians of the period. They could have been models for Dickens' Pumblechooks or Gradgrinds: pompous asses or hardhearted villains with ravenous mouths, bulbous noses, triple chins descending into high starched collars, beady eyes or cavernous orbits, unsavory-looking, ruthless, meanspirited, curmudgeonly, scowling or smiling unctuously, each with a singularly unforgettable face. Despite their small size of about 18 cm, they dominate the large rotunda devoted to them--and indeed steal the whole show.

Passing from virulent satire to vehement political protest is the stark engraving Rue Transnonain, dated April 15, 1834, which is one of Daumier's greatest masterpieces: its emotive power and realism pithily illustrate the artist's revulsion at the cold-blooded massacre of poor, innocent dwellers by troops called out to quell an uprising. In a meagerly furnished room, a diagonal beam of light reveals the body of a man in a nightcap, his bare legs protruding from his bloody nightshirt, lying dead on a bloodstained floor and crushing the body of a baby; to the right the wizened head of an old man and in the shadows to the left, the body of a woman--the repressive regime has spared no one, young or old. The work had an immediate and immense effect on a public that shared Daumier's outrage at the brutality of the soldiers. The Riot, an oil painting of extraordinary modernity from about 1852, is even more poignant and compelling: the same powerful diagonal composition, the expressionist rendering of a worker, arm raised in protest, leading a small troop of insurgents. The dour faces of the men, ghostlike, are barely sketched, and the dark brown hues of the crowd convey an impending sense of doom. In another Riot, this time in charcoal and wash, the damned of the earth are struggling to emerge from an urban landscape of devastation.

The Refugees, one of Daumier's most important series or "variations," reunites here for the first time in 30 years paintings, reliefs, and sketches of immigrants fleeing some invisible catastrophe or misery, most likely the mass deportations that took place after the revolution of 1848. One of the chefs d'oeuvre of his later years, the series is the apotheosis of his talent as painter, sculptor, and draftsman.

In one of the paintings, under a flaming, oppressive sky of fire and brimstone, an endless cortege of almost indistinct weary men, women, children and animals huddled together, bodies bent, plod onward in an exodus toward some unattainable haven, faces and bodies coalescing in one bold sweep of humanity. Like antique friezes, the reliefs present generously sculpted nude bodies, universal archetypes who seem to surge forward in expectation only to fall back again into some indistinct oblivion. With all their power they bring to mind similar tragic events of our times.

In a series on public transport, The Third-Class Carriage (1862-66), one of his most famous paintings, depicts a mother clasping a nursing child with her large, rough hands; an old, careworn woman is holding a basket on her lap, seemingly lost in her own private, melancholy world, impervious to a little boy asleep leaning against her. The colors are sober and muted, befitting the depressing atmosphere of the carriage; in the background the other passengers are suggested with a minimum of detail, faces barely sketched in black outlines, crowding in and silently suffering the discomforts of their Spartan voyage. In the last series of the exhibition, exploring a theme that haunted him for the last 20 years of his life, Daumier forgoes the usual anecdotal treatment of the popular Cervantes character, Don Quixote. Instead, he creates sympathetically rendered impressionistic portraits of both the unfortunate knight and Sancho Panza, who together embody the artist's alter ego--Daumier was described by one biographer as having the soul of Don Quixote in the body of Sancho Panza.

One of the most popular artists of his time, Daumier inspired more than one modern giant, including the likes of Cezanne and Picasso. His Chessplayers irresistibly call to mind Cezanne's Card Players, and his Nymphs Pursued by Satyrs conjure up Picasso's interpretations of the same subject. He was not only a consummate caricaturist, but also a great painter and sculptor, as this exhibition so convincingly demonstrates. One of his greatest contemporary admirers, Charles Baudelaire, summed it up: "One of the most important men I will not say only in caricature but in the whole of modern art."