Daumier’s contemporary resonances

daumier-banner2-24621Jane Kelly reviews the Royal Academy of Arts’ exhibition Honore Daumier (1808-1879): Visions of Paris (26 October 2013—26 January 2014).

I left it very late to go to this and it finishes on Sunday 26 January, but it is a very good exhibition. Not as famous as his contemporaries Courbet and Millet, Daumier is best known for his political and satirical cartoons and caricatures. They are well represented in the exhibition including some famous ones such as his caricature of Louis Philippe as ‘Gargantua’ of 1831. He shows an obese king shitting parliamentary bills and vomiting peerages and bribes to a waiting crowd of courtiers. It was banned and Daumier paid heavily for it with 6 months in prison.

He was a radical and highly political but all his life faced the possibility of censorship or the refusal to publish by the editor of ‘Le Charivari’  and ‘Le Caricature’. Another famous print by Daumier also exhibited, is Rue Transnonain, le 15 Avril,1834’. We are shown an interior with several dead bodies, the execution of an innocent family after rioting in the Paris streets.

After the 1848 revolution which overthrew Louis Philippe, Daumier welcomes the short-lived Republic with several images showing for example Marianne, lit by a shining sun at an open door and several ex-ministers falling over themselves to escape.

With the election of Louis Napoleon in December1848 and the inauguration of the Second French Empire in 1852, Daumier’s work becomes less overtly political and more satirical, with the bourgeoisie often his target.

While his politics is often hidden or less overt, nonetheless readings of his images of for example street players, ‘saltimbanques’, show him making comment on their plight when under attack from the government as “teachers of subversion”and for plying ‘socialist ballads’. In the last room of the exhibition there are five or six of these images. As T.J.Clark noted in his groundbreaking book of 1973, ‘The Absolute Bourgeois’, they were banned from performing at times when there were most people about, had to get their songs licensed, and this was often refused, were not allowed to use any child under 16 years of age in their shows.

“…combining  high morality and the maximum nuisance to the clown’s profession: the child had been abducted, was starving, was exploited, and the child must be rescued. But it was the child who brought in the money, taking the hat round and running through the patter; and if he was rescued where did he go?”

I’m reminded of the recent attacks on Roma and their children.  In fact all the way through the show we are reminded of contemporary politics, the narcissism of politicians, the greed of the bourgeoisie, the poverty of the working class, and class in general.

As well as these cartoons and drawings there are some fine paintings in the show. Like nothing else you’ve ever seen in mid 19th century French painting, there are images of washerwomen with children, working people in a railway carriage, and other more symbolic paintings like the huge ‘Ecce Homo’. These often look like sketches and Daumier rarely exhibited them, but they are very striking and appear almost like personal notes for himself rather for showing in the Salon.

Other drawings and paintings show ordinary, probably working class or artisan people in everyday situations. Without any overt political content, they show with powerfully human emotions of love for children, tenderness between two adults, sadness and hope.

Although I have known his work for many years I found the exhibition very impressive.


1 Comment

  1. Thanks for this review, Jane. One more contemporary resonance: Daumier may have portrayed women as oppressed workers, or as personifications of the Republic or Liberty, but he also caricatured ‘femmes socialistes’ and ‘bas bleus’ (bluestockings intellectuals) ie politically active and/or articulate women.

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