Friday, September 2, 2011

Is This the Greatest Anti-Censorship Image Ever?

by Stephen J. Gertz

Anonymous. La Chasse aux Lettres, scène de l'Ancienne histoire de France.
A Paris chez Ostervald aîné, quai des Augustins, n°37 et Hautecoeur-Martinet,
rue du Coq St Honoré, n.d. Lith. by Georges Frey.

Three riders on horseback with enormous scissors preceded by scissor-wielding dogs chase two-legged letters (that spell  "literature") running for their lives, while vultures circle above, and a pig, at left,  rests on pages of books captioned, "trimmings."

In the foreground, toddlers in wheeled crib-chairs  pursue biped letters "J", "A," " B," and "C." Each crib-chair bears an individual inscription: "And if we become scientists, to be skinned by villains with scissors?;" "To be towed when we grow like wild beasts;" "Poor children we are, why torment us with these fine letters?"

The message: Why learn to read and write if censors will not allow us to read and write?

The lithograph, La Chasse aux Lettres (The Letter Hunt), is anonymously designed, and undated. Why is it uncredited and when was it done?

John Grand-Carteret, in Le Livre et l'Image, asserts that it was published in 1823. This cannot be so; Georges Frey, the image's lithographer, did not establish himself until 1827-29. Another source tentatively dates it to 1840. By 1840, however, censorship laws in France had grown draconian and even the great Charles Philipon, who dominated the market for caricature, whether political or social, had been forced to abandon political satire in his magazines; he'd already spent time in jail; no more, thank you. Between February 1831 and August 1832 he was was prosecuted sixteen times (Kerr, Caricature and French Political Culture 1830-1848, p. 81).

Beyond that, however, La Chasse aux Lettres is part of the series Album pour Rire, many if not most of the plates in that series designed (and openly credited) by Philipon himself, who had, by 1830, ceased creating his own lithographs to publish those of the greater caricaturists, i.e. Monnier, Daumier,  Grandville, Traviés, Pigal, etc., in his stable of artists through the print shop, chez Aubert, that he established for his sister, Marie-Françoise, and her husband,  Gabriel Aubert, to operate on his behalf. Philipon prints issued by Ostervald, as in Album pour Rire, appear to cease by 1830; La Chasse aux Lettres cannot possibly have been published in 1840.

There is a major clue to the date of La Chasse aux Lettres, however, within the image. It is no accident that there are, not one, two, or four figures in the foreground, but three. Nor that they are infants. Symbols were extremely important in French caricature. The three figures represent the Trois Glorieuses, the three glorious days, July 27, 28, 29, 1830, of the July Revolution that followed Charles X's July Ordinances, one of which outlawed liberty of the press.

GRANDVILLE, J.J. Resurrection of Censorship.
"And it rose again the third day after its death" (Gospel of St. Luke).
Paris: chez Aubert. La Caricature, Feb. 29, 1831.

The Trois Glorieuses were later represented in Granville's Résurrection de la Censure, published by Philipon and printed by chez Aubert in the February 29, 1831 issue of La Caricature, Philipon's classic illustrated journal, after the government of the new king, Louis-Philippe I, began to attack the press once more. The three dated stones beneath the coffin are the Trois Glorieuses; hopes dashed, censorship rises from the dead to threaten once more.

The three days of protest  ended with Charles X's abdication and the establishment of a constitutional monarchy. The three infant figures represent the Trois Glorieuses and the birth of a new France. La Chasse aux Lettres, then, was published late in 1830, prior to Grandville's image for La Caricature in early 1831.

It's a grand theory, reasoned through after many hours of research, and I was quite satisfied with myself for about fifteen minutes until my compulsion to continue digging 'til I reached China led to what appears to be the reality.

Buried within the Bibliographie de la France, ou Journal Général De l'Imprimerie et de la Librairie, et des Cartes Géographiques, Gravures, Lithographies et Oeuvres Musique. XVII Année, No. 30 of the weekly periodical, July 26, 1828, at number 571, is La Chasse aux Lettres. I stumbled across this reference  work,  which lists every printed item published in France to the date of each issue, by accident. Case closed. But why 1828? What triggered this reaction in caricature?

"Later, in 1824, as old king Louis XVIII lay dying, a new prior censorship reign was instituted on the pretext that this was a dangerous moment for the country. The king's brother and successor, Charles X, hoping to gain popularity and perhaps to ally suspicions that he was even more reactionary and authoritarian than his predecessor, lifted censorship within six weeks of his accession (Collins 1959, 47). In 1825, censorship was imposed again.

"In 1828, a new press law was passed that pleased no one: It infuriated the liberals and the publishers of little magazines by demanding an enormous deposit against possible future fines from anyone who wanted to start a periodical, political or not…The press law of 1828 made it illegal to publish anything that would excite hatred and contempt of the king's government, provoke disobedience to the laws, or attack the rights of the king and parliament under the Charter of 1814. The courts ruled that "the king's government" included not only the king but his ministers as well…Prosecutions under this law were freequent, but usually counterproductive: The newspapers editors' defense lawyers could take advantage of the open forum of the courtroom to continue criticism of the ministry" (Thogmartin, Clyde. The National Daily Press of France, p. 49).

In La Chasse aux Lettres, the infants in the foreground are France's citizenry being treated such by their government. For all its cultural glory, France has a sorry history of censorship.

As for La Chasse aux Lettres being published without attribution to its artist, only a fool would have openly slapped the French authorities in 1828 so sharply with such ridicule; the price was too high.  France would have to wait for Philipon, who between 1830 and 1835 lost few opportunities to satirize the government, which, in turn, lost few opportunities to make life difficult for him. The identity of the designer, unfortunately, remains a mystery.

Why did the French authorities of the era get so bent out of shape about political satire in caricature?

Because, to the French monarchy, whether absolute or constitutional, "caricature was likened to pornography, whose corrupting influence it was held to share. Philipon's caricatures could not be considered legitimate political commentary because, like the licentious lithographs that were displayed next to them in Maison Aubert's  windows, they appealed to the passions rather than the intellect" (Op cit. Kerr, p. 117).

And so ends another episode of Censorship, Sex, and Politics: C'est la Vie. Ad nauseum.

La Chasse aux Lettres: Grand-Carteret, Le Livre et l'Image I, 103. Bibliographie de la France, ou Journal Général De l'Imprimerie et de la Librairie, et des Cartes Géographiques, Gravures, Lithographies et Oeuvres Musique. XVII Année, at #571 (No. 30, July 26, 1828).

Résurrection de la Censure: Sello I, n.111. von Kritter p.105, n.30. Schrenk p.138, n.27. Farwell p.97, n.86. 

Image of La Chasse aux Lettres courtesy of David Brass Rare Books. Image of Résurrection de la Censure courtesy of the British Museum. Our thanks to both.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Subscribe to BOOKTRYST by Email