Images depicting the leader of the nation as a ridiculous buffoon, pictures lampooning society and relationships, drawings commenting on-or ridiculing- wars, laws, royal visits and revolutions; these could be from any news publication one can find in today’s press. But in fact, in an illustration of how some things change little over the course of History, these describe the vast collection of 19th century French caricatures I am tasked to work on. Deep within the bowels of the Kemper art museum is a grand vault containing many works of art (referred to by the arcane name of “print storage”), and within that vault two unassuming black boxes. These are my job, my task, my mission. Given by Eric G. Carlson in 2000 in honor of professor Elizabeth C. Childs, this collection contains 467 prints that date from the 1820s to the 1870s, by artists such as Edouard de Beaumont, Charles Vernier, Alfred Grévin and even one by the celebrated caricaturist Daumier, amongst many others, and are from varying publications, the most famous being the satirical journal le Charivari. All are (obviously) captioned in French, and were sitting idle in need of someone (me) who could translate, or verify previous translations or, their captions. Less straightforward a task than it may seem, it requires explaining puns such as one of my favorites, a man telling a woman asking for beer “je vous en brasse” (said aloud, it can mean “I’ll brew some for you” or “I kiss you”). These subtleties are what make translation of satire and humor, the basis of many of these caricatures, challenging, though fun.
So at a small side desk in what I affectionately refer to as the Dungeon, to channel a Hogwarts feel (but better known to the staff here as the Conservation Lab), I immerse myself in the mindset and history of 19th century France. I also attempt to recognize, with more or less success, the famous people depicted. Beyond those explicitly named (why don’t they all do that? It makes my job so much easier), there are those easily identifiable, such as Louis-Philippe I, the last king of France. A portly fellow, he had a face with prominent jowls and was often depicted as a pear, to his mild displeasure (the first artist to do so was jailed). Indeed, the pear eventually became his symbol in the satirical press. Others, such as Napoleon III, or Adolphe Thiers (first president of the Third Republic), and many, many more are represented. My last great challenge (again, met with more or less success) in this is attempting to identify the artists that are still unknown to the database. This entails deciphering the ancient-Arabic-script-looking scrawls with which they signed their works, often mirrored because of the printing process. That is if they signed at all. It is a process…
As the project wraps up, the plan is to be able to put it online for the greater world to see (or those few people who stumble upon it by happenstance, this isn’t exactly xkcd) and study, that they may enjoy the wit and puns of 1850s French artists, and glimpse into the views of the people of France. With the wonder of technology, this collection will be freely available to all on the Web. Ideally this will be accomplished without too many glaring mistranslations or inaccuracies for which I am sure the Internet would [will] correct and judge me. Je vous présente donc notre merveilleuse collection de caricatures françaises!
By Jean-Charles Foyer (Thursday, April 24, 2014)