Wotta rotten holiday season so far. But not here at the Journal, where the Quality Content keeps on coming. Today, we have an excellent report from Cynthia Rose of a Paris exhibition on Victor Hugo that tunes into something much more ambitious: a short history of French cartooning.
If French press cartoons are unashamedly rude, what's at the heart of such a caustic culture? To find out, you just need to meet its great practitioners. Some of their names, albeit dusty, are still revered: Honoré Daumier, Nadar (Felix Tournarchon), and André Gill. But many more – once celebrities with powerful pens – are now obscure. Outside of experts, who mentions crazy guys such as Henry Monnier and Jean-Pierre Dantan?
I found the answers in a current Paris exhibition, Caricatures: Victor Hugo On Page One. It's a show focused on the man who wrote Les Misérables, but one that tells his story wholly through caricature. In the exhibition are almost two hundred drawings, many rarely if ever shown, that take you straight to the art's historic heyday.
To revive that era, Hugo is a perfect choice. His eighty-three-year life (1802–1885) coincided with both technological change and huge events. A supersized ambition kept him at their centre and, being a Royalist who defected to socialism, every sort of detractor got to take a shot at him.
No human life supplies the satirist's every need, but that of Victor Hugo certainly came close. Hugo was a prolific, epic intellect and also an epic over-achiever, braggart, philanderer, self-promoter, schemer, liar, and nostalgist. His modern legacy may be the Les Misérables musical but the author's stardom was already global during his lifetime.
We also have a review from a new contributor Toussaint Egan, who takes an enthusiastic look at Ronald Wimberly's LAAB #0.
As a sequential media text, LAAB is a narrative of sorts, though not framed around the actions of any one fictitious character, but rather a discourse centered on the sordid history of an aesthetic entrenched within the complementary forces of racial capitalism, heteropatriarchy, and white supremacy. Per the issue’s opening essay, Wimberly cites theoretician Walter Benjamin’s 1935 essay "Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" to outline how the anti-semitic caricatures created by the Führer cult to lull the German populace into stupefying docility during WWII were preceded nearly 200 years by the racial capitalist aesthetics of Thomas “Dartmouth” Rice’s Jim Crow character, the archetype of what Wimberly calls “the Nigger Aesthetic.” As he describes it, the Nigger Aesthetic refers to the "representation of the Black body, Black life and the corresponding way of seeing and thinking about the Black body, as informed by white supremacy’s stigmatization of the Black body and Black life.” Wimberly proposes that, in order to meet and nullify this pernicious strain of systemic defacement, artists must consciously prefigure the black body and its ontological history within the Western cultural imagination at the forefront of attention so as to eclipse the dangers posed through the tacitly unconscious consumption of these aesthetics. “I believe the presence of Black personhood itself erodes the lie of white supremacist aesthetics.” Wimberly writes. “The juxtaposition of the Black body and its inherent personhood with the reductive Nigger Aesthetics activates a political subjectivity. Like seeing, touching, smelling a human body vs. seeing a drawing of a human body. The presence of the body and its personhood is a material anchor to reality and therefore acknowledges the aesthetics and the political constructs relative to that reality.”