Daumier @ the Royal Academy

Robert Daumier is known as a cartoonist, satirist and chronicler of Parisian life in the mid-19th century. This exhibition – Daumier 1808-1879 Visions of Paris – at the Royal Academy brings together 130 works to argue for a re-evaluation of his achievement ie to raise him from political cartoonist to ‘artist’. The exhibition covers the full range of media he worked in – newspaper caricatures, witty lithographs, small satirical sculptures, drawings, watercolours and paintings – and arranges it chronologically, but certain obvious themes run throughout.

Politics

Daumier fought on the barricades of the July 1830 which overthrew the Bourbons and brought the constitutional King Louis Philippe to power. There was to follow the 1848 revolution, the coup of Napoleon III (1851), the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune (1870). Through the ups and downs of French 19th century history and the repeated defeats of the republican cause by reactionary royalists or turncoat liberals, he remained a republican atheist, refusing to go to church even for funerals, and drawn to the sufferings of ordinary people. Aged 60 he was drafted onto the Commune as art delegate.

Thus his lifelong employment on Charivari, the French equivalent of Punch or Private Eye, turning out reams of satirical cartoons satirising kings, emperors, presidents and politicians, as well as the upper classes and the pretentions of the bourgeoisie.

In Gargantua, an early example, money is being collected for the poor, hauled up into the mouth of king Louis Philippe who craps it out as peerages, awards and jobs for the upper classes. Stylistically, it is unusual, but the attitude of bitter satire is characteristic. This cartoon earned the 22 year old Daumier a 6 month prison sentence and fine.

Gargantua by Daumier, 1831

Gargantua by Daumier, 1831

A section is devoted to caricatures of artists, their fans, collectors and connoisseurs, and satire on the yawning gap between the idealised world of art, especially neo-classical sculpture, and the more sordid realities of 19th century life.

Critics by Daumier

Critics by Daumier

Big oil paintings

At the other end of the scale, Daumier tried repeatedly but struggled to create the large oil paintings which would have qualified him as a proper ‘artist’. Though he received some commissions he seems never to have finished them. He was certainly never interested in the established genres of landscape, still life, history and mythological paintings, or serious portraits, the kinds of work which got you noticed and big money commissions. The handful of big oil paintings on display are a mixed bunch.

Ecce Homo by Daumier, 1849

Ecce Homo by Daumier, 1849

Ecce Homo (1849) is his largest work and highlights his limitations – at the top is the striking gesture of the accuser and the rather haunting silhouette of Christ, but other areas are unfinished or of uneven composition.

The exhibition devoted a little section to Daumier’s depiction of life on the newish railway trains, focusing on another large painting, The Third Class Railway Carriage (1865). The version here is unfinished, displaying the grid of squares used to create it. It is an example of Daumier’s lifelong concern for and feel for the life of the labouring poor. Like a lot of his work, it is a striking image but not a great painting.

The Third Class Carriage by Daumier, 1865

The Third Class Carriage by Daumier, 1865

By far the best of the big oil paintings is the wonderful Man on a Rope (1860).

Man on a Rope by Daumier, 1860

Man on a Rope by Daumier, 1860

It plays to Daumier’s strengths – striking composition or arrangement of the human body, compassion for the human condition – without exposing his biggest shortcoming, realistic depiction of the human face. The most wonderful thing is its unfinished condition: you can plainly see the canvas and the paint is scored and scratched. It is a strikingly modern approach to painting, anticipating the similar rough unfinishedness characteristic of much 20th century art, and a standout piece.

Small oil paintings

Daumier is more at home with small paintings, a couple of foot long at the most. In a very uneven exhibition, probably more successes are in this group than any other. He is not very good at the face, at features or expression. His best compositions are of human figures which, often because of the blurred or unclear faces, have a haunting evanescent quality.

I liked the early painting of The Bathers (1846). Note the completely blank faces. The exhibition notes introduced me to the technique of contre-jour ie having daylight at the back heightened by a foreground in shade. Like many Daumier images this is better the smaller, the more compact and powerful, it becomes.

The Bathers by Daumier, 1846

The Bathers by Daumier, 1846

The Amateur, a much later small painting from the series about art and collectors is more finished but shows the same fundamental qualities, the key is the stance of the human subject whose face is obscured.

The Amateur by Daumier, 1860

The Amateur by Daumier, 1860

It is also a very low key composition. It isn’t, like so much Victorian painting, capturing a moment of high drama, or historical crisis or mythological intensity. It is a quiet candid depiction of a man  looking through prints in a shop. This seems to me a rare quality in art, just to capture the ordinary human being going about some quite nondescript activity. For me a standout example is Man reading in a Garden (1868). This watercolour epitomises Daumier’s ability to capture simple human moments. What could be simpler and yet, in its way, more profound?

Man reading in a Garden by Daumier, 1868

Man reading in a Garden by Daumier, 1868

Compassion for the poor

Talking of ordinary people and ordinary scenes brings us to Daumier’s lifelong concern for the poor. In lithographs, cartoons, sketches, paintings Daumier returned again and again to the trials and tribulations of the ordinary labouring poor.

It’s worth noting that he didn’t work from life but from memory, and that he reworked the same compositions again and again. There are half a dozen sketches of man on a rope, numerous versions of the travellers in the train carriage. An example of both practices is a series of sketches and paintings he did of the laundresses who worked at the Seine near his house.

The Washerwoman by Daumier, 1863

The Washerwoman by Daumier, 1863

The effort of carrying the laundry bag under your left arm and reaching down to help your toddler up that crucial final step to the pavement are wonderfully captured. But note the absence of facial detail or expression. The image is about the body, about effort, about work.

The exhibition includes some contemporary photographs, street scenes from the 1850s taken by pioneer-artist-turned-photographer Charles Nègre chosen so we can compare Daumier’s treatment of street entertainers with Nègre’s photos of the same. There’s a photo of a barrel organist next to Daumier’s painting of one.

A particular category of street scene fascinates him, circus entertainers, the saltimbanques. The commentary makes the smart point that these entertainers often drummed up trade to go into the Big Top, to see the Main Attraction and therefore Daumier’s interest might be a bitter comment on his own status as lowly cartoonist and sketcher who drummed up interest in ‘real artists’ with their 50 foot wide historical canvases etc.

Maybe. Or maybe he was just aware of the irony of so many street performers who made a living cheering people up while often being themselves very poor. In Daumier’s characteristic way, the same scenes and characters are repeated and reworked in different settings or poses. This section reminded me of the wandering entertainers Nell and her grandfather fall in with in Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop (1841).

The sideshow by Daumier, 1866

The sideshow by Daumier, 1866

Don Quixote

Daumier had a lifelong fascination with Don Quixote and generated numerous images of the knight throughout his life. The commentary makes much of the dichotomy between the skinny visionary and the plump pragmatist Sancho Panza and claims that Daumier saw the same dichotomy in his own character, between the artist drawn to visionary paintings and the blunt down-to-earth satirist. Almost the final piece in the exhibition is a strange and surprisingly modern painting of the pair, radically unfinished, which Francis Bacon apparently claimed as one of his favourite paintings – the Don is turning into C-3PO and his squire into a Henry Moore sculpture. Very strange.

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza by Daumier, 1870

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza by Daumier, 1870

A little more characteristic is this haunting image – it is better in the flesh – of Don Quixote and the Mule, a haunting image of abandonment and desolation.

Don Quixote and the Mule by Daumier, 1866

Don Quixote and the Mule by Daumier, 1866

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  1. James Turrell @ Pace London | Books & Boots

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