The Power of the Pear: When Caricature Met Poster Art

From Caricature to Poster takes you back to a lost moment. In the fin de siècle poster boom, it's quite a surprise: ads and promotions created entirely by caricaturists. The story of how this happened is quirky – but it's as real as that of Lautrec's Moulin Rouge or Mucha's Sarah Bernhardt. You can see it now at Museum of Decorative Art in Paris.

Along with Art Nouveau, French poster art created the defining graphics of la Belle Époque. The posters also changed design and typography. Yet no sooner had they bloomed than their industry lost its leaders and, as their art degenerated, so did its commercial power. Panicked, the ad men at its helm sought replacements – and, rapidly, found them in a thriving French humor press. For a brief moment, this offbeat pairing flourished. Then, because of World War I, it was forgotten.

Whether they made pornographic pamphlets or best-selling weeklies, caricaturists had always served as their own promoters. But suddenly letting them loose on corsets, breath mints and bicycle tires? This was a dare whose irreverent results resuscitated an industry. Yet the show does not center on why the posters worked. Instead, out of their tiny history, it delivers something bigger: an important look at the legacy of Philipon's pen.

This is the founding myth of French caricature. It was created November 14, 1831, when the editor Charles Philipon went on trial in Paris. Philipon, then 29, ran a year-old weekly by the name of La Caricature. There, his team there was one-of-a-kind, with graphic stars like Paul Gavarni, Honoré Daumier, J.J. Grandville and Traviés de Villers. (Balzac was another enthusiastic contributor). The journal was notorious for its provocations and, by that November date, Philipon had been subject to eleven prosecutions. This time, his drawings were charged with "outrage against the person of the King".

Philipon's choice of defense is legendary – not least because it prefigures Barthes and Derrida. Maybe, he argued in court, his cartoon did look like the King. But what was "resemblance"? Something that could never be the property of a "single man". Philipon presented the court with a sheet that contained four drawings, a sequence which showed the King's head morphing into a pear. The sketches were, he claimed, "bound together by imperceptible links… The first resembles Louis Philippe and the last resembles the first and, yet, this last one… it's a pear!"

Philipon-PearSketch-24Nov-1831Philipon tackled the very terms of his prosecution. A system in which resemblance could be  "owned", he argued, would lead the law into complete absurdity. ("Where will you stop?… If you will condemn a man for two years for drawing a pear, then you must condemn all caricatures in which a head is narrow at the top and large at the bottom…"). Royalty, he added, was contingent on the presence of its symbols. Only the latter, agreed-upon by everyone, made kingship "real". But had he established the king's identity in his drawing? Did it include the King's "name, his titles or his insignia?" No!

Of course, Philipon's pear sketch still resembled Louis. Plus the very word 'pear' – poire – was common slang for "dupe". Far from amused, the judge fined Philipon 10,000 francs and he served thirteen months in prison.

Yet the artist's gesture proved a stroke of genius. In jail, Philipon found the walls were covered in pear graffiti. Similar images sprang up all around Paris, then all over France. His colleagues soon busied themselves adding even juicier fruits: Daumier drew three men lynching a hefty bosc and Traviès a hunchback slicing the 'head' off a Bartlett. Especially among the illiterate, Philipon's pear was a perfect way to convey resentment.

Between this trial and the summer, fifteen more Philipon caricatures were prosecuted. Seven months after he fruitified the King, the artist proposed a "Monument Expia-pear". This statue of a giant fruit, he wrote in La Caricature, "must be erected on the very spot where Louis XVI was guillotined." This sent Philipon back to court – for inciting regicide. (Unrepentant, he argued that he was merely suggesting to readers that they "make some jam").

Philipon is rightly famous. But, as the Museum knows, what's important in his story isn't just the pear. It's both his backdrop and that era's legacy. Born shortly after Napoleon Bonaparte's coup d'état, Philipon lived through both royals and revolts. For him, as for all of France, civic life was never stable. Rulers, repressions and revolutions just kept alternating and the experience would form French satire.

For one thing, it meant real prosecutions and jail time. Even La Caricature's publisher was tried in court (eight times). Before throwing in the towel, the paper's printer endured countless seizures and four prosecutions. Honoré Daumier served six months in jail and many other artists – among them Traviès, André Gill, Charles Vernier, Charles Gilbert-Martin, Louis Legrand, Aristide Delannoy, Alfred Le Petit and Jules Grandjouan – saw their work proscribed, confiscated or condemned. One night, a gang even surprised Grandville at home. Only his elderly neighbor stopped them from beating him senseless.

These caricaturists followed in English footsteps. While French artists liked to scoff at English cuisine, they adored the humor of Hogarth and his heirs. (They also saw English caricature as the cooking's counterpart. Most agreed with Champfleury that both were "red, rich, nourishing and full-blooded"). Philipon even lauded the English in court, praising them as a "country where 'freedom of the press' is a genuine verity… where resemblance can be exploited by anyone."

The day-to-day world of the French cartoonists was different. For the English, politicians might come and go, but the country and its life remained socially solid. Their Gallic counterparts, by contrast, lived with many fewer freedoms and avoided direct critiques of power. Instead, the French relied on wordplay, symbols and suggestion – even rebus puzzles, where the drawings stood for words. Often, so their targets appeared less obvious, the artists used "types": stock examples of clerics, nobles and radicals. In short, their methods had long been those of ad men.

After more than a century of this, however, everything changed. On July 29, 1881, a Third French Republic passed the Loi sur la liberté de la press. This liberalised both print and publishing at a swoop; suddenly, anyone could criticize church and state.

The number of daily papers doubled – and humor weeklies bloomed. In Paris, this altered the look of daily life. Although "serious" newspapers remained grey and type-heavy, the city's omnipresent kiosks were blanketed in satirical weeklies. Their bright, colored covers served as one-piece "ads" for the laughs.

The Loi de 29 juillet also freed publicity. Full-color posters were already being printed but, now, they could tackle racier subjects and themes. Almost instantly, these posters turned to leisure: to theatre, drinking and the café culture. Even the promotion of things like soap and toothpaste found room for women with come-on eyes and plunging necklines. Plastered all over Paris, often eight feet tall, this vibrant art turned the streets into galleries. By 1883, when the satirist Albert Robida published a sci-fi novel called Le Vingtième Siècle ("The 20th Century"), the Paris it depicted screamed with visual noise. But period photos by Eugène Atget show that this was really no fantasy.

During the mid-1890s, posters reached an artistic peak. From Jules Chéret and Alphonse Mucha to Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, their best artists gained international fame. But, as the century drew to its close, the swirls and curves of Art Nouveau dwindled into nouilles ("noodling"). Worse, the lynchpin stars of 'poster art' were leaving the medium. By 1902, an alcoholic Lautrec was dead. The art's godfather, Chéret, had turned his hand to painting and, in 1904, Alphonse Mucha left Paris for good.

Meanwhile, the humor press had reached a critical mass. From the 1830s up to World War I, a long parade of publications offered work to caricaturists. These days, the best-known titles are La Silhouette, La Caricature, Le Charivari, Le Rire, Le Journal pour rire, L'Assiette du Beurre, La Lune, L'Eclipse and Le Chat noir. But at the 19th century's end there were dozens more. Many were politically Left but some were radically Right. (Occasionally, events would also cause a paper to shift allegiance). Some of the journals were focused around a single issue; these might oppose monarchy, the church, capitalism – or Jews.

The best of these papers became fertile schools of style. French historian Laurent Bihl, a specialist in the press, claims that it is possible to cite a "Charivari generation" tied to lithography; a decade of L'Éclipse artists attracted to André Gill; photo-engraving pioneers who, during the 1880s, worked for Le Chat noir and, then, after 1895, a separate cohort loosely joined by Rire. There were also countless virtuoso freelancers, a group whose members included Nadar and Gustave Doré.

Many of the artists drew under nicknames. For fans, a moniker such as "Caran d'Ache" or "Cham" carried all the warmth of a weekly relationship. The artists were also often more than just names on a page. Big personalities like André Gill and Sem were lively men-about-town, often visible in the very circles they mocked.

These posters by caricaturists have not been much studied; between Art Nouveau and Cubist typography, they fall through the cracks. Yet, countless cartoonists and caricaturists made them. Some, like Henri Jossot and Adrien Barrèrre, took up the trade as their sole profession. Others – like Sem, O'Galop (Maurice Roussillon) and Auguste Roubille – continued to make both posters and caricatures.

This produced some eccentric double lives. The posters by Roubille, for instance, were an immediate hit. His expressive and sinuous line is one of the era's most seductive. Yet Roubille also worked for dozens of humor journals and, in all of these, his drawings mirror a feisty self. They are aggressively anti-church, anti-colonial and anti-authority.


The show's curator, Réjane Bargiel, feels the tensions were advantageous. "The caricaturists brought along new techniques and a new tradition; their universe derived from a different way of thinking. But their world had its own complicity with the public. A caricaturist would use the elliptical, the condensed and the shortcut; he would repurpose how reality looked. But he did all of it in order to communicate and to ensure he could reach the largest audience."

These satirists put the life back into posters. Even though some of the wares on show are faded, their unorthodox energy leaps right off the walls. A knack for fusing simplification and graphic hyperbole made their artists into compelling ad men, yet their anti-establishment eye was always part of the package.

Although the art on show is bright and audacious, most of its makers lived through some terrible years. In 1848, revolt deposed King Louis-Philippe, but it was followed by another coup and another Emperor. The year 1870 brought war with Prussia – ending in a four-month siege that froze and starved Parisians. Its end produced the radical Commune, then bloodletting and civic chaos. Afterwards, for a dozen years of the Belle Époque, the Dreyfus scandal rocked the whole of France. That same era saw bombings by terrorists, a President's assassination and the murder of Left-wing hero Jean Jaurés. Throughout it all, the central clash – and the angriest – was the seemingly endless battle between church and state. Only in 1905 were they finally separated.

la-lanterne-ogeFrench caricature shrank from none of this. The best example here is Eugène Ogé's poster for the paper La Lanterne. Created in 1902, it shows a bat-like creature sinking his claws into a church: a then-new Basilica of the Sacré-Cœur. The bat's dark cloak bears the slogan Voilá, l'ennemi! ("Here you are, the enemy!"). As it winds possessively around the famous Butte, this cloak seems to be strangling Montmartre.

Today's French viewer still gets much of the subtext. He or she knows Léon Gambetta cried, "Here is the enemy!" The declaration marked a moment when Right-wing Catholics tried to bring France back under the Pope. The Sacré-Cœur, then unfinished, was their apology for the "extremist" Commune. (Left-wing Parisians still snipe about the church.)

Viewers of the time, however, saw the bat as a caricature of François-Marie-Benjamin Richard. The Archbishop of Paris and also a hard-line monarchist, Richard was obsessed with building the Sacré-Cœur. Here Ogé provides one light against which he is helpless: the glowing lantern of the paper's title. It's a nod to the French Enlightenment – with its early struggles against the church.

This graphic ferocity is entirely typical. The strategies of Philipon's day never withered away. They endured, continually applied, handed down and expanded upon. They are what make French caricature more than just a matter of laughs. At home, it has long been seen as an art form of its own and central to that identity is a certain anarchism. Sometimes, this lawless power is viewed as liberating but, equally often, it is simply seen as bête ("beastly").

Victor Lenepveu's posters offer a good example. These infamous items come from a "musée", or collection, titled Le Musée des Horreurs ("Collection of Horrors"). All fifty-two of its pieces were drawn by Lenepveu. Two years ago, a set was sold at auction in Paris, where the catalogue called it "of a violence that has rarely, if ever, been equalled… all the more terrifying since, as caricature, the work is so remarkable."

King-of-the-Pigs-Victor-LenepveuEach poster shows the head of a Dreyfus supporter – Zola, Clemenceau, the Rothschilds – mounted on an animal body. All the facial depictions are photographically accurate. But Zola, for example, becomes "King of the Pigs". He is shown painting on a map of the world, dipping into a chamber pot labelled "International Shit".

In condemning caricature as "an act of violence", Louis-Philippe's lawyer wasn't entirely wrong.

The caricaturists made as many posters for products as publications. But whether they were extolling cigarettes or chewing gum, these artists brought unusual perspectives to every pitch. Take the Michelin man or, if you're French, "Bibendum". He is the invention of Marius Roussillon, O'Galop. In addition to cartooning, Roussillon was a well-known painter. The Michelin brothers approached him with their own idea – a man completely made of tires. But they liked one of his sketches, a drinker who was hoisting his beer under words from Horace (Nunc est Bibendum!! or "Now it's time to drink!!").

first-michelin-man-ogalop-roussillonRoussillon reprised his design for the Michelins. But, this time, he drew a bouncy bon vivant quaffing champagne. The artist also filled his cup with nails and broken glass. On the tablecloth below him, Roussillon emblazoned, "To your health! Michelin drinks up any obstacle!"

The slogan and Roussillon's "Man" proved an immediate hit and the artist went on cranking out tire-men for years. One of his best is here on show: Bibendum kicking his viewers right in the face. Tubby yet tough, he's even chewing a stogie.

semelle-michelin-roussillonThe exhibition is littered with similar sly critiques. In an 1898 poster for cherry kirsch, Henri Jossot makes the drinker a giant mime. As pale and spooky as a death's head by Edvard Munch, this clown evokes the era's absinthe addicts. The subtexts of other posters may seem sunnier, but every one turns out to have its subtle quirks. A 1900 ad for the weekly Le Sourire (The Smile) features a blousy woman purring, "Do you have a smile?". Jules-Alexandre Grün shows her leaning forward, tipsy and almost falling out of her dress. In one hand she holds another poster for the journal – one with a sternly unsmiling sketch. Captioned "Our Editor", it's "signed" by Grün's rival, Leonetto Cappiello.

Many of the posters are huge, so the show feels big and capacious. But its finale leads through a dark and narrow hallway. Here, the display features modern work from Charlie Hebdo, with the best art coming from Cabu, Luz and Riss. These works are not present just by hazard; it's a direct line from Philipon's pear to Cabu's Mohammed.

In each case, that of the pear and that of the 'Prophet', the image took on a life its creator never planned. Instead of merely chiding the King, the pear "became" Louis-Philippe; even now, it still defines him. Instead of rebuking Mohammed's less worthy followers, Cabu's sketch was taken to be a literal likeness.

Meaning, as Philipon once so cannily argued, is indeed conferred by shared agreement.

Five months after Cabu was murdered, his Charlie colleague Luz published a strip entitled "Tache" ("Blotch"). In this, he shows himself trying to draw again, managing only to spill ink on the page. A manic, bearded figure takes shape next to him, pointing and screaming, "He's drawn Mohammed again!". When Luz protests it's only a blot, the figure explodes again: "I forbid you to compare Mohammed to a stain!"

Philipon's own experience was strikingly similar. On 24 September 1835, he had to spike a cartoon. The sketch had contained a dog, a cat, an ape, a lady and a rabbit. But the censors felt the rabbit resembled "a pear with ears", so the artist had to subtract it. Just like the figure next to Luz, the censors were not appeased. They rejected the sketch all over again.

As Philipon reported, "Their grounds were that, while the rabbit no longer existed, on the table there was a carafe that looked like the rabbit that looked like the pear that had looked like, etc. This is where we had to throw in the towel. For even if we had gone and taken out the carafe, the censors would shortly have discovered a candy jar that looked like the carafe and then a clock that looked like the candy jar and a vase that looked like the clock."

The censors, of course, were not wrong. French caricature is intrinsically radical – even when it came to 19th century advertising. It remains so today, more than a century later. The art still insists, as did Philipon, that what we see is likely not to "be" what we're told. A pear really can become a king and a king might lose to a fruit.

Or perhaps a rabbit, a carafe or a glass of kirsch.

De la Caricature à l'Affiche (From Caricature to Poster) runs until 4 September 2016 at the Musée des arts décoratifs in Paris. The catalogue of the same title is excellent.