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By Andrew Jack

PARIS, 2 January 2000
- There cannot be many personalities of any sort today, let alone artists, who have such potential powers of disruption that even after they die, the police would bother to send an informer alongside the funeral cortege to keep an eye on proceedings in case of trouble. Yet that is precisely what they did in 1880 for Honoré Daumier.

In spite of numerous retrospectives of aspects of the provocative Marseilles-born artist's work over the decades, a new exhibition - currently at the Grand Palais in Paris, and soon to open at The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. - attempts to take a more comprehensive overview of the range and variety of his imagination and techniques.

daumier: the strong man
Daumier: The Strong Man (c. 1865 - 1867) The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

Daumier is perhaps best known for his scathing political caricatures, published notably in the journals La Caricature and Le Charivari. The many examples shown in the latest exhibition demonstrate how powerful they could be in capturing and contributing to dissent.

Their acerbic qualities extends well beyond the bounds of many of his harshest contemporary equivalents, and turned Daumier from simply an observer into a player - sometimes at considerable personal risk or pain.

Gargantua, for example, his far from flattering attack on Louis-Philippe which was published in 1832, cost him a sentence of six months' imprisonment. What should have been limited to a suspended sentence was turned into a real one after he produced a second cartoon just as vicious as the first.

Beyond his political works, however, Daumier showed impressive and timeless skills at capturing aspects of society which remain as relevant today as when he first penned them. Perhaps most notably, his scrutiny of the justice system beautifully captures the duplicities of advocates and their clients.

Le Défenseur from the early 1860s has the desperate, sincere pleadings of a defence lawyer, juxtaposed with the rather more ambiguous expression of his female client. Never has the complicity between defence and prosecution been better captured than Après l'audience in the same period, with the conspiratorial and friendly smiles of the two lawyers saying their goodbyes at the end of a case.

The emphasis of this new exhibition is nonetheless that Daumier was considerably more than a paper caricaturist. On show are a range of sculptures he produced, most wonderful three-dimensional versions of his drawings of colourful individuals of the period.

There is Jean-Ponce-Guillaume Viennet, Comte Charles-Henri Verhuel de Sevehaar, and above all Clément-François-Victor-Gabriel Prunelle with his shock of hair, or Baron Joseph de Pondenas. It is just a shame that the show's organisers could not have placed a little more description alongside the works of such men, most of whom have long since been forgotten.

The second originality of the exhibition is Daumier's skills as an artist. Some of his sketches of everyday life are a just continuation in the tradition of Hogarth. Others, like Tête d'expression, are reminiscent of some of the powerful art of Holocaust survivors in both style and pain.

On the other hand, some of his paintings are a little disappointing, particularly those which are inspired by religious themes. They made this visitor wonder if it is not so surprising that Daumier has remained deservedly most well known for his caricatures.

Even so, other works seem impressive and well ahead of their time, such as the Munch-like Femme et enfant sur un pont from the mid 1840s, the Picasso-like Le Fardeau from the early 1850s and his remarkable Don Quichotte series.


Paris - Grand Palais
Until 3 January 2000.

Washington, D.C. - The Phillips Collection
19 February - 14 May 2000

Andrew Jack is the Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times and a member of the editorial board of He is the author of a new book entitled, "The French Exception" (London: Profile Book).

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