31 March, 2014Issue 24.6The ArtsVisual Arts

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Satire and the Illustration

Jennifer Thorp


Gustave Doré (1832-1882): Master Of Imagination
Musée D’Orsay, Paris
18 February—11 May 2014

Satire in the 21st century is by and large a television-based affair; arguably, the most famous modern Western satirist is Stephen Colbert, whose rabidly right-wing Colbert Report skewers the excesses and contradictions of world politics. This spring, however, a trip to the Musée D’Orsay on Paris’s Left Bank will take you back to a critical time for one of satire’s most popular media: illustration.

Gustave Doré (1832-1882): Master Of Imagination—an exploration of the French illustrator, painter, and sculptor’s prolific output—is the most comprehensive exhibition of his work in decades. Nowadays, Gustave Doré is predominantly remembered for his woodcut illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy, which manage, in a peculiarly 19th-century way, to be both sternly po-faced and flamboyantly crammed with writhing, naked flesh. The Musée D’Orsay exhibition, however, is more interested in highlighting his prodigious contributions to the arts of satirical illustration and cartooning, and devotes nearly an entire, very crowded floor to his extraordinarily productive career.

Satirical cartooning is generally agreed to be one of the older forms in human art: it appears to have developed just after the first reproductions of the beautiful or ritually important in symbolic form. Satires and lampoons may have first developed as societies with coherent power structures and patterns of behaviour formed, assembling both ready-made audiences and hierarchical figures to destabilise.15. Doré_L'Enfer de Dante An early example appears on an Egyptian monument in Thebes, which depicts a wealthy woman vomiting after excessive indulgence at a feast. As the Egyptologist Sir Gardner Wilkinson primly noted, “the painters […] have sometimes sacrificed their gallantry to a love of caricature”. Caricature, the specific element of satire that utilises the grotesque in form to emphasise corruption (or at least imbalance) of nature or morals, attracts contention; a critical debate still grinds on about whether the earliest truly modern satirical caricatures are to be found in scrawl on Pompeiian walls or in Leonardo Da Vinci’s grotesques. Umberto Eco’s lush exploration of the unsightly and disgusting in art, On Ugliness (2007), shows that the impulse to use art’s sharp edge against opponents has had outlets in even the most dignified of media.

Yet the Doré exhibition highlights a crucial factor in the development of satirical illustration as we recognise it today: the creation of the popular press. Histories of illustrated satire locate the explosive moment for popular satire in the Western world in the Reformation, where the moving-type printing presses that spread Martin Luther’s ideas were also used to produce woodcuts and illustrated pamphlets designed to convey uproarious religious ideas to the unlettered. By Doré’s time, the popular press in France had developed into one of the world’s largest. 13. Dore_Le chat bottéThe D’Orsay exhibition locates Doré at the centre of this fertile landscape. One display case features an astounding roll of satirical sketches that would, if completely unfurled, reach 20 feet in length—all reproduced from Doré’s considerable career as a satirist for Parisian publications, including Le Journal amusant, Journal pour rire, and Le Monde illustré. Doré’s fame and productivity—he produced tens of thousands of these sketches and rapidly reproduced them in the press—was clearly founded on a prodigious talent: he marched into a humour magazine at the age of 15 and by 16 was the highest-paid illustrator in France. However, they were also dependent on the emerging industry of immediate news. Satire, as the exhibition makes clear, is often based on swift response; a cartoon in the same week’s paper would have a far more pointed impact than a delayed one. The news cycle made Doré and it produced what we now recognise as modern satirical illustration. He was also a beneficiary of a new travel infrastructure: “the panoramic perception that was to develop with the advent of the first rail journeys”, the catalogue explains, allowed Doré to extend his lampooning pen internationally, pricking national self-conceptions as he went.

Doré’s wildly popular magazine output ranged from miniature one-panel gags and cartoon-style ‘strips’ to broadsheet-sized productions, lampooning such contemporary fads as sea-bathing for one’s health. (At the time, sea-bathing was viewed as madly dangerous, indecorous, and an opportunity for gender-mixing licentiousness, or all three). 01. Doré_Joyeuseté Doré demonstrated and, possibly, originated the fundamental tenet of the modern satirist, that everything and everybody is under scrutiny and is vulnerable to being punctured by the satirist’s pin. He neither specialised in any particular illustrative form nor restricted himself to politics, behaviour, or class activities; instead, he took on everything from pompous generals to the bouffants of country peasants and—in an infamous painting now held at the Metropolitan Museum in New York—visiting Englishmen in France, who were distinguished by their rabbit teeth, affected expressions, and general air of gaping upper-class imbecility. (While Doré apparently loved this picture, he took it out of circulation after he visited London and met the Prince and Princess of Wales. Even the notorious skewerer of movers and shakers wasn’t invulnerable to the glamour of royalty).

Doré’s career was not characterised by critical success—his illustrations were dismissed by critics because of his lack of professional training in the formalised arenas of Parisian art, particularly the infamous Salon—but he was nevertheless beloved and wealthy, hailed by van Gogh as an “Artist of the People”. It would probably be too much to argue that Doré independently elevated the satirical illustration to the level of high art: he was never convinced of its status himself, hoping desperately for the critical acceptance of his paintings, which were a more ‘legitimate’ artistic pursuit. But the exhibition does suggest that his magazine work had a significant pedigree. In creating it, Doré drew on the uncanny distortions and imaginative play of the drawings of Goya and Bosch, uniting the two in a way that permanently expanded the ambitions and scope of satirical illustration. Even his most minimalist cartoons, a few strokes of the pen for a nobleman’s weak chin, exemplify the play of line in space; the delicate expertise in his complex satirical engravings ranks them among the greatest illustrations of the period.

The exhibition’s most interesting segments are the rooms devoted to Doré’s little-known artistic talents—he was a skilled sculptor and capable of enormous, ceiling-skimming canvases, including a Christ-centred crowd scene that makes one’s eyes cross—and to his illustrations of some of the most famous (and satirical) fiction in history. Doré’s work on Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Perrault’s Fairy Tales are all staggering exercises in detail and precision, while also incorporating the vivid immediacy and exaggeration of satirical illustration. rsz_09_dore_frontispice_don_quichotteThe engravings of Punch Magazine, which have double identities as highly skilled artistic works and waggish commentaries on societal weaknesses, have their origins in Doré’s unification of beauty and savagery; indeed, Punch was originally an imitation of Le Charivari, the French satirical newspaper founded by Doré’s discoverer, Charles Philipon. One room of the exhibition highlights Doré’s pictures of the infant Gargantua and his son Pantagruel—an interesting decision, since there is something uniquely alarming about Doré’s grotesque profusions of wailing baby-flesh the size of large houses. The voracious greed of babies is analogous to the oversized, crude, and impulsive existence of Rabelais’s giants themselves; Doré’s observant lines find this parallel easily. Mothers may find their hungry, squirming children slightly frightening after visiting this particular room.

The cruelty of Doré’s pen was clearly attracted, as the exhibition’s arrangement points out, to works that required a frank, condemning view of the world. Beside the ample exaggerations of Rabelais, Doré found an innate ridiculousness in the hapless, fragile Don Quixote, whom he depicted as a wide-eyed, flamboyant charmer. (The imagery is more famous than one might realise: Sir John Tenniel’s illustrations of the romantic, yet bonkers White Knight in Alice in Wonderland, drawn a decade after Doré’s, are clearly inspired by this droop-moustached figure). His renderings of Perrault’s Fairy Tales are more automatically horrifying than amusing. The visitor can watch scrolling electronic displays of the crowing Puss In Boots as he dons his first clothes, the fat and indignant expression of his Red Riding Hood as she probes the Wolf’s identity, and the bulging eyes of Bluebeard as his pale bride fingers his keys—all of which contain edges of an exaggerated, lunatic grotesque.Pantagruel Even Doré’s revered and serious engravings of Dante’s Divine Comedy, which featured the highly recognisable interpretation of Dante and Virgil descending to the underworld in their cloaks, lavish attention on the condemned. Dante and Virgil are the only centres of dignity in the landscapes of Doré’s Divine Comedy: the condemned figures of Hell, who in life were kings, popes, and other prominent figures, are vulnerable and exposed, frightening and deformed. As the Greeks understood, satire has a shaming and savage edge; it does not, after all, have to be funny.

Immediately following these rooms, the D’Orsay offers up Doré’s frankly surprising output of vast Caspar David Friedrich-esque landscape pictures as the end of the exhibition—a questionable decision. The relationship between satire and the sublime is an unsteady and contradictory one, and the placement seems to reflect Doré’s own shifts in faith regarding the focus of his work—his output also had a strictly moral side, as with the ‘Doré Bible’ of 1866. Perhaps the final room is seeking to appease the ghost of Doré’s legacy, but it reads as though the exhibition’s curators are imitating Doré’s own doubts by seeking to finish with a more ‘traditional’ proof of his artistic talent. This is a disservice to Doré’s considerable service to satire, of which he was one of the true, modern progenitors.

Jennifer Thorp is reading for a PhD at the Centre of New Writing, Manchester.