Imagine that Jon Stewart, instead of Howard Stern, was King of All Media, with his pithy comic analyses of our society appearing not only on Comedy Channel, but in The New York Times and Mad Magazine, on YouTube and Hulu and SiriusXM. Imagine further that one week in the Aughts, Stewart had done a sendup of George Bush so devastatingly funny and insulting that he was thrown into jail for six months. (Yes, it’s hard to imagine the Bill of Rights having been set aside during the Bush Administration, but try.)
Then imagine that toward the end of his life Stewart decided he wanted to try his hand at serious filmmaking and subsequently elicited appreciation for his efforts from Marty Scorsese and Steven Spielberg. Now — and this may be the tough part — imagine all this happening more than 100 years ago in France. Then you’ll get an idea why the lithographs of Honore Daumier on display at the Birmingham Museum of Art are such a big deal.
The exhibition entitled “Art for the Masses,” curated by Dr. Jeanine O’Grody of selected works from the collection of Dr. Patrick Rowe, makes a fitting sequel to the museum’s previous display of rock ‘n’ roll photographs. Just as the snaps of musical icons in “Who Shot Rock and Roll?” offered a viewer insights into late 20th century America, Daumier’s lithographs teleport one back into the political and cultural tumult of 19th century France, an era the artist’s career practically bestrode.
For many, an acquaintance with the history of France ends with the Marquis de Lafayette and the French Revolution. The fact is, though, while America was still working out the kinks in its experiment with democracy, France, particularly Paris, was the epicenter of culture in the Western Hemisphere. Nietzsche observed, “An artist has no home in Europe except in Paris,” which was certainly true in 1808, the year of Honore Daumier’s birth. Theatre, literature, music and graphic arts all flourished even as Napoleon Bonaparte attempted to subjugate continental Europe in a doomed campaign called The Peninsular War.
Daumier was born into a circle of art in Marseilles, with a father and grandfather who were framers and a godfather who was a painter. The family relocated to Paris when Honore was seven because his father had decided to become a writer. In the post-Napoleonic era, it was not a solid bet for paying the rent. At the age of 12, Honore went to work, apprenticed as a gofer for a courthouse functionary, but his imagination was already starting to percolate.
In 1822, the teenager persuaded his father to let him take art classes from an established painter named Alexandre Lenoir, but Honore’s cocksure attitude soon got him bounced. He enrolled in the Swiss Academy to study drawing, but his fate was altered when he produced his first lithographs there.
Drawing on strength
Lithography helped set Daumier apart from the rest. A relatively new printing process when he happened upon it, lithography was a new and affordable way for artists to make finely detailed copies of their original works. In a digital age, it sounds cumbersome, but it was a godsend in 1822: the artist would draw a picture upon a smooth piece of limestone using a grease pencil (or crayon), then the stone would be washed with an acid solution, then water, then an ink compatible with the grease pencil. Because water and grease are incompatible, the ink stuck to the image, but not to the blank areas of the stone. A printer would place a sheet of paper atop the stone, apply pressure with a flat-bed press, and the result was an exact duplicate of whatever the artist had drawn.
Generally, the first run printed three copies; one for the artist to approve, one for adding a caption to the picture, and one to send to a government censor, who had the power to approve or deny the publication of the image. The latter copy was the one that would cause problems for Daumier later on, as he developed a keen interest not only in the ways of politics but in its peccadilloes.
His skill in lithography earned Daumier an apprenticeship with another established artist, Zephirin Belliard. As with interns in the present day (though with decidedly fewer coffee breaks), the apprentice would have learned the finer points of his trade, but would also have gotten the chance to work on his own projects. Sure enough, at the age of 21, Daumier sold his first prints to a magazine, a humor weekly called La Silhouette.
It was a huge vindication for a comparatively untrained artist, and more significant because of who bought his work. Charles Philipon was the publisher of La Silhouette, but he also operated the print shop in Paris responsible for other such satirical periodicals with greater influence, notably La Caricature and Le Charivari. Because Philipon took a liking to Daumier, he gave him access to these publications (as well as much-needed revenue) for his rapidly developing gift of snark.
Lacking any governmental guarantees of press freedom, a printer in France in the 19th century was obliged to be careful with his output, lest he wind up in the hoosegow. Magazines such as those Philipon published trafficked in satire, especially the political variety, and though a headstrong lad such as Daumier might be quick to poke the needle, his thin-skinned targets could be equally quick to strike back.
King Charles’s suppression of civil liberties precipitated his overthrow in July 1830, a revolutionary action in which Daumier certainly participated. The wealthy class, seeking to protect what they had, acted quickly to insure a line of succession agreeable to them. After Charles abdicated, the Duke of Orleans, Louis-Philippe, was crowned.
Calling himself “King of the French,” Louis-Philippe was initially hailed as a populist, but the power brokers who pulled his strings were not interested in expanding rights for any but themselves. Though restraints on the press were initially lifted in 1830, subsequent laws put the clamps back on.
Daumier’s lithographs became more acerbic when they dealt with the ruling family. In November 1831, Philipon was arrested for publishing two lithographs mocking the King, and in December, Daumier was pinched. While awaiting trial, Daumier raised the ante with a cartoon entitled “Gargantua.”
It was a punk rock move, to be sure. Drawing Louis-Philippe as a giant sitting upon a different sort of throne, Daumier imagined the lower classes filling bags of money and carrying them up a plankway to dump into the open mouth of the greedy monarch, whereupon Gargantua would excrete favors and commissions into a crowd of courtiers and officials standing underneath the, er, throne.
Whatever’s French for “over the line,” “Gargantua” was. Agents of the crown seized all the prints they could find and destroyed the stone that printed them as well. In February 1832, Daumier was arrested, tried and sentenced to six months in the slam, but the sentence was suspended. Incredibly, Daumier did not take the hint, continuing to draw lithographs attacking the government, and in July, the government decided to re-impose the six-month sentence. Daumier was thrown into Saint-Pelagie Prison, where he still managed to create occasional lithographs until his release in January 1833.
Charles Philipon, who had been jailed as well, was also released about that time, and the two set about making the weekly Honore Daumier lithograph Must See Journalism. Because the government had in effect banned political satire, La Caricature and Le Charivariturned to social satire. This is the point at which Daumier’s work truly became art for the masses.
We are told that Daumier was a flaneur, a casual observer of urban life. He was lucky to live in a city that provided endless subject matter for observing. Paris was and is a repository of every human foible. Eschewing a sketchbook, Daumier would stroll the boulevards, viewing life’s rich pageant. “He had this amazing memory,” Dr. Rowe said. “He would go to the theatre or a tavern and then go to the studio and create these remarkable lithographs off the top of his head.”
However, Monsieur Daumier was no knock-off artist. Speedy though he may have been, he was meticulous in his appraisal of the human condition. Curator O’Grody has remarked upon “his perspicacity, his ability to sense the most essential aspects of his subjects’ character and then to draw it.”
When you walk into the spacious gallery at the Birmingham Museum of Art, there is, in fact, humanity on display. As Charles Dickens and Mark Twain were able to capture the richness of ordinary life in well-chosen words, so Daumier does with supple, controlled pencil strokes. His figures are not static, but fluid, and his compositions are painterly. (One lithograph from 1862 entitled “The physiology of the drinker” was directly copped by Vincent Van Gogh for a canvas 28 years later.)
The BMA exhibit arranges these lithographs by subject matter, and two subjects most dear to Parisiennes, drink and dining, greet you at the door. There is a plate from a series on Parisian boatmen, showing a delightful bit of physical comedy involving the drinking of toasts and the hazing of a new recruit, on which Daumier likely scratched the stone with a sharp object to create the illusion of spray in the tavern. An 1844 tableau for a Le Charivari series on “Strangers in Paris” offers a take on the perennial jape about rude French waiters. The clothes are anachronistic, but the exasperation and sarcasm of the diner and the garcon respectively are timeless. “In many of these prints, even with our 21st century eyes, we can glance and easily see the humanity there,” Dr. O’Grody said.
Political censorship continued until 1848, when seething social pressures blew the lid off Louis-Phillipe’s reign. Once more, revolution was in the air. The king abdicated in February and the unions rose up. A bloody suppression of the workers resulted in 3,000 dead in the streets of Paris and 11,000 republicans arrested.
Democracy seemed to have triumphed again with the free election of Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew as president of the Second Republic, but four years later, rather than run for re-election, Louis simply declared himself an emperor and called himself Napoleon III. That was the bad news. The good news was, to keep the liberals quiet, the new Napoleon was willing to relax those restrictions on the press, and political satire was back in business. Daumier and his associate Philopon were back in prime time again.
It is helpful, but not crucial, to be acquainted with European history to enjoy Daumier’s political lithographs fully, but his inventive imagery will be identifiable to anyone who reads political cartoons of the present day. Though Daumier was a contemporary of Thomas Nast, the American called “The Prince of Caricature,” Nast’s drawings, mannered and exact, lack the energy of Daumier’s vibrant illustrations.
For example, in 1854, Daumier drew Russia’s despotic Czar Nicholas as a crowned bear waving fire and a sword to subdue his people. During the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Germany’s Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck was shown asleep on the field of battle, being awakened by the spectral figure of Death, who wants to thank him for all the casualties he’d caused. Daumier foresaw the rise of German militarism, the next year drawing an eclipse of Liberty’s light by the distinctive Prussian cavalry helmet called the pickelhaube.
Like many political artists, Daumier understood the futility of war. His 1870 depiction of young patriots caught up in the blood-lust to become warriors, bearing the knowing caption, “Those who are about to die salute you,” is a message pertinent to the present, as is an 1866 plate called “The European equilibrium,” in which the earth is carefully balanced on the points of soldiers’ bayonets.
As might a contemporary artist such as Garry Trudeau, Daumier worked up some running characters for his pictures, such as Robert Macaire, a money-hungry bourgeois, and Ratapoil, a skeezy monarchist with a decided resemblance to Napoleon III. However, one of his favorite recurring stars was Death, whom he would draw bicycling past the tombstones of famous artists, or driving a wagon labeled with the awful year of 1871, or, even more disquietingly, playing a flute and wearing a rakish hat for “Peace, an idyll.”
Toward the end of his life, Daumier, losing his sight, turned to oil paintings in hopes of catching posterity’s eye. “He wanted to be known as a painter,” Dr. O’Grody explained, “but he had to produce all these lithographs to make a living.” It was never a good living. The artist was frequently in financial straits, and after he went blind, he depended on the help of fellow artists such as Camille Corot to augment his state pension of 1,200 francs (which would be just over $3,400 annually today).
Daumier died in February 1879, and The New York Times obituary got it just right. Calling him “one of the most original artists France has produced,” the paper noted his prodigious output of imagery and said, “This enormous mass of work, however, corresponded rather to the term caricature as applied three centuries ago than to the meaning now usually given it; that is, they were studies of character.”
That wonderful quality comes through in a typically excellent 1849 composition for a series called “Sketches of the day.” It is nothing remarkable, just four men sitting on a short wall, shooting the breeze. Though the caption someone contrived for it is comical, it is the draftsmanship of the drawing that compels. Somehow, with mere strokes of a pen more than 160 years ago, Honore Daumier created a living depiction of real people at their ease on a sunny day. You know these guys. Even now.
The poet Charles Baudelaire neatly captured the essence of his friend in verses he included in his masterpiece, Fleurs du mal:
The man whose image this presents,
In art more subtle than the rest,
Teaches us sagely, as is best,
To chuckle at our own expense.
In mockery he stands apart.
His energy defies an equal
In painting Evil and its sequel —
Which proves the beauty of his heart….
(Translated by Roy Campbell, 1952)
“Daumier: Art for the Masses” is on display in the Jemison Galleries at the Birmingham Museum of Art through Dec. 31. For more details, call (205) 254-2565 or go to www.artsbma.org.