The aim of this blog is to broadcast the ideas and discoveries which come to light as a result of the ongoing research. It will be a platform for networking across anglo-french relations and contributing with fellow researchers to the current debate on satirical art in polemical discourse.

Presentation of thesis: To look at humour and disgust through anticlericalism in nineteenth century caricature and to use the analysis from this to gain a better understanding of the self-perception of the caricaturists.

Detailed outline: In light of my recent review of current research in nineteenth century caricature, I have noticed that while there is a lot of analysis on why caricature humour might have been offensive, little seems to have been said about precisely how this offence might have been achieved. The agreed theory is that ridicule belittles the subject in the eyes of the reader and so damages their authority. This theory, already celebrated in the nineteenth century by caricaturists and contemporary art historians, does not discuss, beyond looking at each caricature in isolation, how this effect might be achieved. I want to venture a theory that might be applied more generally to the logic behind both the effectiveness of caricatures and the caricaturists’ self-perception as political and artistic comedian. I believe that caricaturists use disgust and humour to create a new, criticising vocabulary within the shared idiom which is only fully understood by their sympathisers. The community attributes prestige to the ability to communicate in the caricature vocabulary and ridicule or exclude those who do not understand or fail to enter into the communal spirit which perpetuates the enthusiasm for caricatures and the caricaturist-reader relationship.

I believe that the caricaturist uses a pre-existing vocabulary of symbols belonging to a particular social group or community to make ironic suggestions about the targets of their caricatures. The readers, able to interpret the symbols for their underlying meaning, are amused both because the messages portray a common enemy in an unflattering light and because they enjoy a feeling of belonging to a select group credited with understanding the barbed innuendoes. So much is already fairly well known but I believe that what is lacking is an understanding of how the caricaturist creates a community within a community through the use of disgust. Caricatures frequently present images of the body, of mud and filth, to debase their subjects and make them appear more flawed as humans. This exaggerated realism works alongside the more regularly occurring exaggerated ugliness of the subject’s personal features. In the instances where these images appear, it is clear that the caricaturist is using the shared symbols of physical disgust to expose a presumed, more easily hidden, moral decrepitude that might inspire outrage or moral disgust. The public image of the caricaturists’ targets, particularly those who are well-known, is tainted by this association, causing damage to their reputation and possibly inhibiting their social and professional careers.

Yet these symbols do not appear in every caricature, nor does every caricature feature subjects with excessively exaggerated, ugly features. I believe that this does not mean that the uglifying strategy is only used in some caricatures and not others. Instead, it points to a long term strategy that is part of the caricature tradition rather than the work of just one caricaturist. The symbols of disgust do not suggest moral laxness or hypocrisy in a casual manner. This is a semiotic relationship between the physical and the moral, the visible and the hidden which is built up through gradually familiarising the reader the symbol and its intended meaning. Evidence shows how these symbols are built up over time and as the caricature tradition develops, each caricaturist inheriting and reinterpreting the visual vocabulary for a new generation of readers. The symbols used become ambiguous, both keeping their original, communal meaning and the new, critical caricature meaning. Those regular followers of the caricature journals will be introduced to the new meaning and so be in part distinct from the rest of the community, sharing with the caricaturist a specialised knowledge and perspective on society. This society, however, is their and the caricaturists’ own or the one they aspire to, most often of the middle to upper classes. To a certain extent, therefore, the criticism is directed at them. I believe that the lighthearted rapport they feel with the caricaturist prevents them from taking offence upfront while their sympathy with the caricaturist’s views leads them to accept the criticism as in part merited.

Evidence that this inner community exists is strong from the writings of fellow artists and intellectuals who followed the caricaturists. They frequently comment on the hilarity of the caricatures and present their solidarity with the caricaturists, especially those resisting against a shared enemy. Their tolerance of the potentially offensive criticism that touches them as part of the community is in part explained by this solidarity and also by the distance created by the lighthearted treatment of the subjects. I mean to look more closely at how this lightheartedness works over the generations of caricaturists and readers but, as a preliminary theory, I suggest that the readers appreciate an ironic humour that works in a similar allusive and ambiguous way to the disgust. The cues for the irony are not always present unless the discerning reader can relate to an earlier caricature and so understand the underlying message. This specialised ability to understand the underlying message is part of the attraction and so creates a feeling of kudos for the readers who may feel superior to their peers. This in turn reduces the sting of the offence because the readers feel that the criticisms apply less to their select group to which the caricaturist himself belongs.

This humorous approach is the other necessary part of the caricature tradition and helps the historian to gain some insight into how the caricaturists perceived their role as comedians and critics of their era. Caricaturists clearly gave themselves a licence to be offensive. But, at the same time, they sacrificed the kudos associated with “high” art to create ephemeral, “low” art less aesthetically valued by a large proportion of their contemporaries. They are effectively limiting the prestige they might gain from their talent to the select, inner community whose loyalty they have gradually developed. They have accepted the role of clown or social jester whose ability to be offensive is in part determined by how little their importance as social commentators is esteemed. This status comes with the social expectation that they will use oblique symbols and innuendoes to communicate. This allows them to develop an inner community whose loyalty is assured by their promise to continue to amuse and to perpetuate the flattering

My intention in this thesis is to trace the development of this tradition over the course of the nineteenth century from the beginning of the July Monarchy until the end of the belle époque or the start of the first world war. I believe this long period of study will be valuable because it will allow me to follow references in later journals made to earlier caricatures or artists. I do not want to focus just on three or so artists or on three or more specific periods or journals because I want to gain an understanding of the tradition as a whole which might be skewed if I limit the examples of styles and contexts I intend to study. One particular journal, however, I feel must be included: L’Assiette au beurre (1901-1912). This anarchist paper very obviously displays both a language which tears apart the established symbolic meanings and a feeling of connection to earlier caricaturists whose revolutionary spirit they felt justifies their calls for social rebellion. The focus for my research will be anticlericalism. I feel that this offers a useful source of stock symbolic imagery which is relevant across the whole of the nineteenth century. Unlike the commentary directed at the government of the time, anticlericalism uses long term themes and images whose use over the period is more easily traceable and comparable.

Getting into the mind of the nineteenth century caricaturist.

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search