Tuesday, 14 January 2014
From Eliot to Daumier and back 2
The current Daumier exhibition is the only one I can remember where I have both laughed out loud and been moved to tears (yes, really). If Daumier (1808-1879) hadn't been a cartoonist as well as a painter, I suspect we would recognise him as the great artist he really is. And yet it is precisely the fact that he was both a political cartoonist and a painter of street life that defines his greatness. He bridges the gap between humour and tragedy.
There have been other artists who were, occasionally, caricaturists. Annibale Carracci and Bernini were predecessors as was William Hogarth, and Hogarth's suites of engravings are certainly social satire, but Daumier was a journalist cartoonist who worked as a commentator in the daily press (and was imprisoned for it.) His cartoons function in a different sphere from the paintings - the cartoons are by definition yesterday's news, evanescent, their occasions forgotten or, if remembered, as themes in specialised books or as footnotes in more general ones - but partake of the same vision.
Cartoon art retains, at best, some independence - for example the work of, say, Gillray and Rowlandson in the 18th C - but it arises out of contingency and is remembered as part of a totalising vision. Late twentieth century cartoons of the savage school, from Scarfe and Brookes and Rowson through to Steve Bell, show brilliant draughtsmanship and are, no doubt, art works in their own right, but are oddly one dimensional, mostly in one gear. Everything gets splattered from some nominally ne plus ultra point of moral outrage: everyone's a monster or a victim. Brilliant as the cartoons are, they are in essence a kind of demagoguery.
Daumier is different. Few of his figures in the cartoons are wholly monstrous. Monstrosity is not his stock-in-trade. Those figures that do approximate to the monstrous move through symbolic events as actors and offices, but are depicted not very differently from the good, and neither is more than a shade away from the real as seen in the paintings. The humour in the best of them is removed both from the specific event and from the totalising vision of the Scarfe / Bell world. They are funny because the perfectly pinpointed human situation continues to be funny and free of a mannered generality.
I must be careful not to make this a long essay. I don't have the scholarship for that, so let me pass on to that which moves me.
It is, I think, the grasp of the whole human situation, which, in Daumier, is funny, brutal, noble, ridiculous, heartbreaking and heroic, often all at the same time. He is a wonderfully vigorous draughtsman whose vigour is as evident in the cartoons as in the paintings. His figures are often shown at full stretch, in looping but tense diagonals, or else shrunk into the darkness of themselves, their body weight convincingly planted on the ground, pressing in or out of it. They seem, at times, to have sprung out of earth, like plants possessed and driven by sheer living energy. The washerwomen, the Quixote figures, the crowds that foreshadow those of Edward Münch and Van Gogh, but are somehow less frenetic, less hallucinatory, are energies rendered out of the ordinary.
Nor is the vigour of the draughtsmanship an affected form of display. It comes from within. Daumier's handling of paint, especially in those apparently half-finished studies and variations, establishes mood, volume, movement and empathy. His palette is like Rembrandt's, his brushwork a cross between Hals and Goya. His understanding of the body is very much like Goya's in fact, with an implied low centre of gravity. It is not that his furiously established solid figures resemble human beings: it is that we, as human beings, are part of the same fury and trudge of living. The drama is broad and elemental - you can pull back from the paintings and see, all the more clearly, the structural energy at play - yet the figures are still singular and fully characterised.
Technically he is one of the greats. Beyond that, yet integrally a part of that technical greatness, his vision is comprehensive - I have already mentioned how he bridges the gap between the comic and the tragic. He is a moral and political artist one can trust. The art of the Soviet era copied some of the formal aspects of Daumier - I think of those diagonal masses pressing towards some ideal goal - but they had no humour. They were, for the most part, technically competent dull propagandists.
Not so with Daumier. In Daumier the technique and vision are one. The morality is as much in the paint as it is in the head or heart. The yearning for justice is as much in the vigour of line as in what the line depicts. In Daumier the art and the man are of the same fabric.
If socialism is to have a great representative artist I would go for Daumier above anyone else. Daumier's justice springs neither out of loathing nor out of sentimentality: it arises out of an understanding of what we are, which is neither splatter-gun monsters (though of course we are that too on occasion) nor puny puppet-like victims (and we can be that too). In Daumier's world we are human energies, neither beautiful nor ugly but crowded, striving, various.
Hence the laughter and the tears.