Sunday, October 14, 2012

Honoré Daumier: Master of Subtlety

Honoré  Daumier was a French lithographer famous for his masterfully rendered satirical illustrations. At the time Daumier was working (mid to late 1800s), France was undergoing major societal changes. In 1830, Charles X had been overthrown in The July Revolution, and Louis Phillipe I took his place. During Charles X's reign, French artists and intellectuals had been at the forefront of an opposition movement against the king. Daumier was deeply frustrated with the corruption of the French government, and he contributed a number of illustrations to his friend Charles Phillipon's satirical publications, Le Caricature and Le Charivari. In 1832, he was jailed for six months for publishing Gargantua, which depicted the new king, Louis Phillipe, as a monstrous giant who devours his subjects (see below).

In general, Daumier is known for critiquing the excesses, corruption and hypocrisy in French bourgeoise society. In one of his famous series of prints, Daumier chronicled the exploits of Robert Macaire, a mythical villain in mid-nineteenth century French popular culture. The illustrations were, in the words of Daumier's publisher, an attempt to mock the "Robert Macaires" of French society. The prints appeared in La Caricature and of Le Charivari (below are two images from the series):


Not all of Daumier's images were satirical. One of his most famous prints is Rue Transnonain, a lithograph that depicts a man brutally massacred by government troops during a riot in 1834 a working class neighborhood of Paris. To me, the image represents many strengths of Daumier's work: attention to composition (strong diagonals), dramatic lighting and subtle tonal rendering. What's so haunting about the image is its grace, despite the fact that it depicts a gruesome subject. A close inspection of the print reveals that the man in the center of the image is not sleeping (as it might appear at first glance), but dead: he is surrounded by pools of blood. Crushed underneath him is a dead child, whose small hands and face have been delicately rendered by the artist.

I would consider Rue Transnonain to be one of Daumier's most successful pieces — but this is not to discount Daumier's satirical prints. The gestural line quality of all of Daumier's drawings give them a freshness today, when the issues the artist was concerned might seem irrelevant. Daumier's images are subtly drawn, so that every character— however absurd— feels believable and animated. In his more somber work, like Rue Transnonain, the figures are drawn with empathy and care, which allows viewers to linger on the details of the man's face, or the baby's hands, and mourn the injustice of their murder.

When I look at Daumier's work, I am blown away by his technical gifts and his ability to convey so many emotions and subtleties through drawing. I am also impressed by his prolific career— during his life, he produced 4000 lithographs, 1000 wood engravings, 1000 drawings, 100 sculptures and 500 paintings. WOW! No one can say he sold out—he's a far cry from Thomas Kinkaid.

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