Why the art of caricature is sacred to the French?

Why the art of caricature is sacred to the French?

By: Annie duprat

In 2018, moral and civic education became compulsory in middle school classes. We can read in the Official Bulletin that “the teacher exercises his pedagogical responsibility in the choices of implementation, by adapting them to his objectives and to his students”: what the teachers do, what Samuel Paty did.

While the trial-river of the 2015 attacks, known as “ Charlie Hebdo ” is unfolding, was it not wise to submit a caricature published by this newspaper for examination, and to look specifically at the concept of secularism?

Anticlerical cartoons

Anti-religious caricature, whether ironic or just seemingly offbeat, is never innocent for believers.

The fight waged in France against the Catholic Church which culminated with the law of 1905 was very violent. The anticlerical caricatures of the early XX th century do not hesitate to associate the figure of the priest to ravens or pigs, to show them being groped or matrons boys and all sorts of scabrous situations.

Under the title “Their occupations”, the caption of this anonymous cartoon published in the newspaper La Calotte in 1911 also plays on humor: “What are you doing, Abbot? “I do like you, I look for a breast on the calendar.”

A controversial goal

Etymologically, “caricare” load, gives the Italian caricatura, the French will draw both the word “charge” and the notion of “portrait-charge” who had so much success in the XIX th century and word “caricature”, any figuration with a polemical goal.

In The Encyclopedia of Diderot and d’Alembert (1751), the charge is defined as follows:

“It is the representation, on canvas or paper, by means of colors, of a person, of an action or more generally of a subject, in which the exact truth and likeness are only altered by excess of ridicule. The art consists in unraveling the real vice or of opinion which was already in some part, and in carrying it by expression to that point of exaggeration where one still recognizes the thing, and beyond which we would no longer recognize it; then the load is as strong as possible. “

We can see that the whole point of caricature lies, according to this definition, in excess, in playing with limits.

Diderot adds that “it is a kind of imaginative libertinism that should be allowed at most only by relaxation …”. By writing this, the philosopher shows that he has not perceived the polemical, even destructive, power of caricature, which can become a mortal danger for public order.

In the XVIII th century, the monsters of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, zoomorphisés characters, or hybrid burlesque scenes so-called “world upside down” to the delight of crowds. We see for example the pig slaughtering the butcher, the wife-beating her husband. 

The joyous rejection of ordinary public order is also expressed in the hustle and bustle of popular festivals. All this is the substrate of caricature, whether political, social, or manners. 

From the outset, therefore, it has a cathartic function, perhaps making it possible to sublimate violence.

When the questions evoked by the cartoons are complex, the texts inserted in the image (“bubbles” or “phylacteries”) help to clarify their meaning, but then they are less powerful, because they are more difficult to understand at first glance. 

The caricature must be direct and simple and the image gains a lot by not being cluttered with signs that blur the visual overview, in a window, a newspaper, or on a wall poster.

The turning point of the French Revolution

The French Revolution saw the explosion of caricatures. 

When Pope Pius VI condemns the Civil Constitution of the Clergy voted by the National Constituent Assembly in the spring of 1791, the reaction of Jacques Bonhomme – an emblematic figure of the Frenchman “well from home” – was not long in coming: he wiped his hair. behind, laughing with the pope’s brief, that is to say, an administrative act written by the pope issuing an order to the faithful.

The image borrows from the register of the “upside down world” by the inversion of values, the gaze aimed at the spectator and the knowing smile, the scatology applied to a clerical question of the greatest importance, from the point of view of the papacy at least.

Reading agreement

There is an essential element that should never be forgotten when talking about caricature: the reading pact between the caricature – sometimes the caricaturist – and the viewer.

Because of an image, what is it? Lines, signs, and possibly colors arranged on a support (paper, wood, canvas, glass, and sometimes stone) in order to produce meaning in the eyes and mind of the spectator. The object is nothing without an outside look.

It is therefore theoretically possible that the same document produces an infinite number of meanings – and of counter-meaning, which makes its educational use very delicate.

The Reading Pact is based on a common culture and understanding of both parties. This funny peasant who wipes his bottom with a pontifical “brief” is in the most absolute transgression, not only by what he says (rejection, mockery), but by the trivial situation portrayed here.

But it also belongs to the register of humor, because scatology, one of the favorite themes of fairground comedy, elicits immediate laughter, often even before the viewer has identified the scene or the protagonists.

The golden age of caricature

In France, undoubtedly the only country to practice and to revere as much graphic (caricature) or textual (pamphlets, satires, fables) criticism, some controversial drawings have acquired an exceptional status and it suffices to evoke them by a simple understatement – “They have spoken about it ”- to understand that the conversation refers to the famous drawing by Caran-d’Ache (real name Emmanuel Poiré) published in 1898 on the occasion of the Dreyfus affair in the daily Le Figaro.

Emblematic drawing of the affair, it tells of the quarrels within families. Its author was anti-Dreyfusard, but everyone could recognize this family lunch totally ruined by the discussions about “The Affair”. 

A teenager fallen to the ground, a dog that runs away with a fork stuck in the butt… the atmosphere is clearly electric! The laconism of the image “A family dinner” reinforces the power of the subject since only two captions appear: “Especially, let’s not talk about it” in the upper cartridge and “They spoke” in the lower cartridge. 

They are not essential for the understanding of the document but are used to easily reference it during a conversation or an evocation in writing if there is no illustration.

Why the art of caricature is sacred to the French?
The famous drawing by Caran d’Ache about the Dreyfus affair. Wikipedia

Caricature and satire have developed thanks to the existence of a democratic public space. The freedom of expression that characterizes it makes it possible to see the emergence of new methods of contesting the powerful, ways of thinking or mores. 

We speak of the “golden age of caricature” for the years between 1830 (the foundation of La Caricature journal by Philipon ) and at the time of the Dreyfus affair, from 1890 to 1900.

Century of the triumph of the bourgeoisie, the XIX th is also the revolutions, the class struggle and peoples. The law of 1881 on the freedom of the press protects cartoonists for a long time until the moment when, after World War II, having realized the danger of ad hominem attacks, case law introduced the protection of individuals and the right to image . 

The advent of the Internet is a game-changer by allowing everyone to see what is published in other skies. There is a real culture shock for this bunch of merry men who drew for Charlie Hebdo. The designer Luz explained it very well in 2006, after the Danish cartoons affair and the Charlie Hebdo fire.

The common culture which made it possible to preserve this reading pact is today in great danger. It is therefore a question of thinking about the means of refounding it, in order to preserve the rebellious spirit and the critical sense which make the richness of a democratic society, beyond the differences of origins and religious convictions of those who live there. make up.

This story was originally written in French by Annie Duprat Historian, CY Cergy Paris University for The Conversation. We The World obtained permission from the author for republishing this story in English under a Creative Commons license.

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