The use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticise people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.
— The Oxford English Dictionary
To me, Art’s subject is the human clay
And landscape but a background to a torso;
All Cezanne’s apples I would give away
For one small Goya or a Daumier.
— W.H. Auden
In the steadily shrinking, in our land almost desiccated, field of political humour — whether satire, cartoon, caricature, or lampoon — if there is one name that comes instantly to mind, floating above all others, it is that of Honore Daumier: born at Marseilles, 1808, died 1879; a man who lived for significant periods of his life at the edge of destitution but left behind ‘the legacy of the greatest number of visual images created by any artist from antiquity to the end of the 19th century’, as an admirer wrote, putting the figure at some ‘4000 works of graphics, 300 paintings, 800 drawings, and 1000 woodcuts and sculptures’. It is not the numbers alone, however, that put him a substantive cut above countless others: it is the quality of work that he produced, zealously, relentlessly, without let, throughout his troubled life.
Daumier lived in difficult — some would call them interesting — times. Even as he was growing up learning how to draw and paint while earning a meagre living as a delivery boy, France was preparing for an upheaval: the Revolution of 1830 that put finally to end the rule of the Bourbon dynasty, and brought Louis Philippe — a ‘Citizen’ — to power as King. But nothing went smoothly in the land, for in the 18 years that he ruled before he was overthrown, the new king’s regime was marked by a muzzling of the press, a refusal to introduce electoral reforms, and — the worst sin of all — political corruption. This was fertile ground for honest writers and journalists and artists to grow in, and many of them came often into the open, opposing the monarchy and its hangers-on, one of the most prominent names emerging from the group being that of Charles Philipon, “the breath of whose nostrils was opposition”, and who ran two satirical publications, La Caricature and Le Charivari, to which Daumier began to contribute on a regular basis. In fact, as Henry James wrote, “Daumier became more and more the political spirit of the Charivari, or at least the political pencil, for Philipon.” As time moved, this ‘pencil’, “played over public life, over the sovereign, the ministers, the deputies, the peers, the judiciary, the men and the measures, the reputations and scandals of the moment …” All too predictably, both Philipon and Daumier ran afoul of the powers that be who slapped heavy fines upon them, filed endless cases against them in the courts, and on occasions threw them into jail. But the visual and verbal onslaught of publisher and painter went on unabated. Comment never lost its bite, image never its sharpness. The result? In Daumier’s caricatures, one can feel the breath of the times, sense the stink of corrupt repression.
As he worked, every foible, every chicanery, each hint of arrogance that he saw in the people, or the types, around himself was grist to his artistic mill. No one was spared as he made fun, sometimes biting, caustic fun, now of the ilk that he knew from close — painters, actors, mountebanks, and the like, now of politicians and venal officials and those masquerading as art critics. Consider his lithograph of a painter seen almost running, applying last minute brush strokes to a painting carried by a worker on his back in front, trying to finish the work in time for submitting to a jury; or his paintings of actors going through paroxysms of false emotion while performing in melodramatic pieces on the stage. But it was for lawyers — so-called ‘Officers of the Law’ — that he reserved his true disdain. Having been at the receiving end of their arrogance and their pretensions in his own life, he showed that he really did not care for these people. He was a bit tolerant of judges, being content often with showing them dozing in their seats, or wearing world-weary expressions. But lawyers were his pet aversions, for he saw them as “men paid to simulate emotion and pious devotion to justice, but actually smug and insensitive”, “rushing up and down the corridors, their black gowns flapping, forever busy and exuding a sense of their own importance”.
While he was all this – caricaturist and satirist – one needs to remember that Daumier was also a great humanist, endowed with warm feelings, especially for the under-privileged. He might have made fun of himself sometimes, when, for instance, he said once that “I care more about my tobacco pipe than about fame and honour,” but he was a serious man and truly a very gifted painter. Paul Valery, the great French poet, once wrote that if Daumier was compared sometimes to Michelangelo and Rembrandt, it was just. For, in this triumvirate, he saw Michelangelo as the theologian of mankind, Rembrandt the philosopher, and Daumier the moralist.
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