& scathing pens
'When Artists Attack the King: Honore Daumier and LaCaricature, 1830-1835' at the Cantor
by Sura Wood
As the presidential campaign heats up and you're thinking that politics have never been nastier or more inane, here comes an exhibition that demonstrates that things haven't changed much since the 1830s. When Artists Attack the King: Honore Daumier and La Caricature, 1830-1835, a pithy, mud-in-your-eye mini-spectacle now on view at Stanford University's Cantor Arts Center, provides just the acidic perspective we need to jolt us in our time of trouble. This small show of about 50 prints is divided almost evenly between works by the brilliant 19th-century caricaturist Daumier and the rest of his talented cohorts at La Caricature, a satirical Parisian weekly that proved to be a prickly pain in the substantial ass of King Louis-Philippe I of France and his lackeys, whose country was still reeling from the turmoil of the revolution.
A friend of Baudelaire, Daumier skewered the corrupt, the hypocritical, the tyrannical and the simply overreaching with lacerating humor, stinging visual puns and incomparable draughtsmanship. (He produced hundreds of lithographs for the publication, and several thousand during his lifetime.) Daumier, along with the journal's fearless artists, who collaborated and played off each other, employed savage wit and scathing pens to lampoon the ministers of the July Monarchy, as the king's reign was known, who censored the press and otherwise abused their power. The government returned the favor by subjecting the rascals to prison terms, fines and lawsuits – Daumier was imprisoned for six months, which certainly was no picnic. But drawing well turned out to be the best revenge.
The quality of his compatriots' contributions notwithstanding, Daumier, who was only 22 when he started at the journal, is the star of the show. Whether or not you're acquainted with his style, your eye immediately gravitates towards his evocative, nearly three-dimensional lithographs, whose figures have weight and intensity, and vibrate with life. And they don't require the amplification of the captions that accompany them to put across their message; it's not an exaggeration to say that a Daumier lithograph is worth 1,000 words, as is seeing his technical virtuosity and detailed renderings in person. With its proportions and delicate highlighting, each detail scraped carefully onto stone, "Don't You Meddle with It!" is a fine example of Daumier's finesse. In it, a muscular heroic printer, the very picture of a strapping proletariat with clenched fists ready for a rumble with Louis-Philippe, stands on a patch of ground emblazoned "freedom of the press."
Curator Elizabeth Mitchell complements the images with historical context, illuminating the tenor of a contentious period rife with social inequities not so different from our own. She also supplies tasty descriptions of specific pieces and La Caricature's favorite targets: the regime's venal players, their transgressions, and especially the king (a.k.a. "la poire"), a portly figure ripe for ridicule, usually presented as a bulbous, phallic-shaped pear. With his jowls and fat cheeks framed by exaggerated mutton chops and a pile of hair that came to a precipitous point at the top of his head, he was, unfortunately for him, an editorial cartoonist's dream. The July Monarchy's suppression of the images led directly to their proliferation. During its five-year existence, La Caricature ran over 450 lithographs mocking Louis-Philippe. A wall of infamy in the gallery is dedicated to some of these humiliating and hilarious depictions, which began to take a serious turn. In "The Loose Head," for instance, the king is a fat white pig in a Roman emperor's toga carried aloft by a rowdy crowd, and in "Temptation," a parody of the temptation of St. Anthony, he's a plump, avaricious pig in monk's robes, clasping his hands and cradling Machiavelli's The Prince in his lap instead of a Bible. He's courted by a gaggle of minions, some with devil's horns, proffering bribes and a golden crown. Perhaps the exhibit's strongest piece, "Lower the Curtain, the Farce Is Over," finds a masked, rotund king costumed in a ruffled harlequin's outfit. He stands near the footlights at the front of the stage and aims a pointer at a statue of blind justice as the curtain falls.
As these powerful prints illustrate, thinkers, particularly those with a gift for aesthetic expression, pose a danger to tyrants. When the French government clamped down on them, these artists became increasingly strident, escalating their damning indictment of the king and the July Monarchy, which, in turn, responded with severe reprisals. This game of chicken continued until the passage of the notorious September censorship laws, which finally ended La Caricature for good in 1835. That's one way to silence your critics.
(Through Nov. 11.)