The mighty print
Daumier's bitingly satirical lithographs recall a 19th-century battle between the arts and the king
It's France in 1833, and you really, really hate the king. But you don't want to get thrown in prison for shouting, "Down with Louis-Philippe!" in a crowded theater.
So you go to the produce market. You pick up a pear and make a snide face, and everyone around you laughs. You feel better.
Protesting authority through symbols is as old as time. There's the raised fist, the peace symbol, the flag. The Guy Fawkes masks worn by Occupy protesters. The elephant signs carried by Spaniards angry at their king for going on a pricey safari during the recession.
In France in the early 1830s, it was all about the pear. The French word "la poire" was already a slang term; it was great for calling somebody a blockhead or a dope. Then Charles Philipon, publisher of the satirical journal "La Caricature," noticed that the plump King Louis-Philippe — who was declining rapidly in popularity — looked a lot like the fat-bottomed fruit. His pointy hairstyle didn't help.
The joke took off. People drew graffiti of pears on Notre Dame and inside prison cells, and artists slipped tiny pears into their artwork.
Today, about 180 years later, framed prints are arranged on the wall of a Cantor Arts Center gallery in the shape of a giant pear. Each lithograph contains an image of a pear: Louis-Philippe's head; the king gathering inside a giant fruit with his advisers, all looking like furtive seeds; Frenchmen straining to support a massive pear.
These and the other prints in the new exhibition "When Artists Attack the King" come from a specific and significant period in French history: the five years between two times of weighty press censorship. "La Caricature" was published only for these five years, 1830 through 1835. This was also when the noted printmaker, sculptor and painter Honore Daumier (1808-1879) emerged as an artist to be reckoned with.
Half the prints in the Stanford exhibition were done by Daumier: biting, darkly humorous and boasting fine draftsmanship. Daumer, Philipon and their colleagues were young and audacious, risking — and sometimes enduring — prosecution for printing just what they thought during these tumultuous times.
The previous king, Charles X (1757-1836), had become hated in France because of high unemployment, low wages and rising grain prices, according to an exhibit card. In 1830, a violent uprising called the Three Glorious Days broke out, and Charles abdicated. He had no clear heir, and Louis-Philippe I (1773-1850) was seen as a citizen king who could be a compromise between the working class and the wealthy.
"It didn't quite work," said Elizabeth Kathleen Mitchell, the exhibition's curator, standing in the gallery on a recent morning. "It was a complicated time for France."
Mitchell gestured to one Daumier print that illustrates the tough position the artists found themselves in. Titled "Ne vous y frottez pas!! (Don't you meddle with it!!)" the lithograph depicts a finely chiseled printer, almost Social Realist in his sturdy stance. At his right, Charles X swoons into the arms of his advisers; at his left, Louis-Philippe charges menacingly toward the printer.
The artist is "trapped between two regimes" but not ready to give up without a fight, Mitchell said. His clenched fists seem to be vibrating with defiance.
Indeed, there was something to be defiant against. Once on the throne, Louis-Philippe quickly retreated from his pledge to uphold the freedom of the press guaranteed in the Charter of 1830. "As he started getting criticized in the press, he started putting laws and bureaucracy in place," Mitchell said.
An 1831 "La Caricature" print by the artist Auguste Desperret (1806-1862) reflects the mood of the times. Ironically titled "La Charte est une verite ... donc, la presse est parfaitement libre! (The Charter is fact ... therefore, the press is perfectly free!)" the lithograph depicts a printing press being quashed by weights, quoting the king's words back to him.
This is the first Cantor exhibition for Mitchell, who previously worked at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. She's clearly pleased with the display, which features 50 satirical prints, a photograph of Daumier and yellowed issues of "La Caricature." The walls are painted royal burgundy and pear-colored, and Mitchell had all the prints' frames gilded.
The items come from the collection of the Cantor, which owns the entire five-year run of "La Caricature," Mitchell said. The museum has hundreds of prints from the journal in its collection, along with many of Daumier's later works, which included sculptures and paintings and tended to be lighter in style. Their satire made fun of the bourgeois lifestyle, for example, instead of the rulers.
"I was downstairs in storage going through boxes of prints," Mitchell said. "There are so many different stories that could be told."
The story of 1830-1835 got darker over the five years as the fight between the king's July Monarchy and the satirists heated up.
"The July Monarchy confiscated 28 issues of 'La Caricature,' broke lithographic stones, and prosecuted several staff members," one exhibit card reads. Daumier served six months in jail, and Philipon made 11 appearances in court and served a total of 20 months behind bars. The publisher reportedly came up with his pear symbol while testifying in court.
"They got arrested; they got fined; they got brought into court," Mitchell said of Daumier and his cohorts. "They were playing a very serious game. But they were doing what they thought was the right thing to do."
All along, the artists' satirical voices were getting harsher and their images sharper. In 1834, Daumier made his most famous print, "Rue Transnonain," after a worker uprising in Paris turned bloody. Soldiers, thinking a sniper had fired on them from a building on Rue Transnonain, stormed the building and killed indiscriminately, an exhibit card reads. "Daumier's meticulously drawn reaction to the event presents multiple generations of family, victims of the soldiers' vicious retaliation, lying dead in their home."
In the print, a man has fallen dead on his child, with bloody footprints scattered about. The image is not as gruesome as it could be; at first glance, the man could be sleeping. Yet the print is far more vicious than any image showing the king as a grotesque, bulging pear.
"It's the most scathing image related to Louis-Philippe, and yet it doesn't depict him," Mitchell said.
In the end, the king lost all patience with the press. In 1835, the French government passed the September Laws. They banned political images totally, and "La Caricature" shut down.
One of the last prints published in the journal was Daumier's eerie image of people climbing out of a grave. Titled "C'etait vraiment bien la peine de nous faire tuer! (It was hardly worthwhile getting killed for that!)" the lithograph represents victims of the Three Glorious Days revolution against Charles X, reborn later in 1835.
They emerge, open-mouthed, to see soldiers attacking citizens and clergymen doing nothing to help. Meet the new king, same as the old king.
What: "When Artists Attack the King: Honore Daumier and 'La Caricature,' 1830-1835," a new exhibition of prints and newspapers at the Cantor Arts Center
Where: 328 Lomita Drive, Stanford University
When: The museum is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, and until 8 p.m. on Thursday.
Info: Go to museum.stanford.edu or call 650-723-4177.