THE ART OF HONORÉ DAUMIER. An artist’s artist

A rare chance to reappraise the masterful work of a soulful caricaturist

HONORÉ DAUMIER (1808-1879) was 21-years old when his satirical lithographs began to appear in the Paris weekly La Caricature. One of his early works portrays the king of France as a big-bellied, spindly-legged giant with a pear-shaped head. Louis-Philippe gorges on the coins his ragged subjects have been forced to give. His throne is also a lavatory; beribboned documents flow from under his seat; he is excreting new peerages. This cartoon earned Daumier six months in jail.

A committed anti-monarchist and passionate enemy of corruption, unfair taxation and pretentions of all kinds, Daumier was undeterred. He applied his crayon to lithographic stone and created thousands of other works of satire, targeting lawyers, policemen, faddish artists and other scoundrels. These images brought him fame and many admirers. Gustav Courbet and Vincent Van Gogh owned his work. Edgar Degas collected 750 lithographs, five drawings and a painting. Pablo Picasso, Sergei Eisenstein and Francis Bacon are among those who have paid homage to Daumier on canvas and in films. “Daumier operated as an observer and caricaturist, but his forms have also the grandeur of great art,“ explains Frank Auerbach, a School of London painter.

“Daumier: Visions of Paris”, an exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, displays 130 of his works—lithographs, drawings, small sculptures and paintings. They illustrate why he has always been an artist’s artist, and grant the general public the chance to reappraise his work; to appreciate him as artists do. Do see it if you can.

It is easy to understand why the general public has been slow to grasp the depth and range of Daumier’s gifts. The great artist has been obscured by the brilliant caricaturist. He hits his targets with such force that viewers become too absorbed by his message to notice how this was achieved. Yet without his skill, the images would not pack such punch.

Consider for example the vision of the king on his toilet-throne. Its composition contributes greatly to its impact. The king fills a large space, perhaps a quarter of the whole. He looms over everything and everyone. A long plank connects his cavernous mouth to the tail-coated, money-collecting functionary down at ground level. Crowded into the lower, right-hand corner are the tattered poor, among them a white-haired man on crutches and an emaciated nursing mother. Daumier never worked from live models. He looked, he studied, he memorised. Nothing was dashed off to create an effect.

A private man, Daumier was a reader (among the paintings on view are several brooding works based on Cervantes’s „Don Quixote“). He was neither a talker nor a writer. While it is known that he wanted to be taken seriously as an artist, his reasons for failing to follow up on opportunities to show his paintings remain a mystery. Two of the most arresting oils in this show are mirror-image versions of “Man on a Rope” (1858), both of them 110cm high. Each is the blurred, scrapped-down vision of a man holding tight to a rope which swings free—from what? To the right is a patch of sky with sketchily drawn buildings below. At first glance, they could be by Francis Bacon.

Paintings of laundresses, drinkers, the occupants of a third-class railway carriage are all memorable works of art, particularly his magnificent, almost monochrome “Ecce Homo”, in which Christ stands accused before a mob, wearing a crown of thorns and long robe. Also impressive are his watercolours of the jauntily dressed but weary street musicians and actors known as saltimbanques—a subject reprised by Picasso. However bitter his satire, Daumier seems to have been motivated not by hatred or jealousy of the rich and powerful but by a profound fellow-feeling for the poor and betrayed. He is not only an artist’s artist; he is an artist with soul.

“Daumier: Visions of Paris” is on view at the Royal Academy in London until January 14th 2014

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Oct 31st 2013 Internet The Economist