Steven Heller | Essays

When Satire Was More Than Funny

"L'Impudique Albion," caricature d'Edouard VII by Jean Veber, L'Assiette au Beurre, Septembre 1901

At the turn of the century the French Republic was threatened by a military-church-aristocracy coalition and a huge bureaucratic machine dominated by L’assiette au Beurre or the Butter Dish — the entrenched job-holders who dispensed favors for a price. They were despised but curiously tolerated. 

During this period Paris was emerging as the art capital of the world. The Belle Epoch was in full swing. Artists were streaming in from Europe, joining ad hoc Salons des Independent. Many socially conscious artists turned to anarchism as a way to transcend the insularity of bohemianism and openly vent their political frustrations. They often created cartoons as a weapon of their struggle and, therefore, required outlets that projected their images beyond the hermetic salons and ateliers. It was propitious that in 1901 Samuel Schwarz founded a satiric visual weekly, aptly titled L’Assiette au Beurre, expressly poised to attack the functionaries who made their fortunes off the sweat of the citizenry. One of many graphic periodicals at the time, it not only critiqued the ruling classes but altered social mores in the process. Would that could be done today.

“Le Vatican” by Galantara, from L’Assiette au Beurre, November 1905

The acerbic art of L’Assiette au Beurre was produced by an assortment of international artists who contributed radical points-of-view. The journal provided a matchless opportunity to exhibit biting satires within a virulent, highly innovative artistic environment whose professed mission as the overseer of social foible and immoral excess was successfully carried out for the next twelve years.

L’Assiette au Beurre was loosely patterned on the German satiric magazine, Simplicissimus, with full-page drawings as the main content. The text was minimal if used at all. Art Nouveau was the predominant graphic style although the more decorative aspects were subservient to the caustic polemical ideas. The mastery of line — expert use of lights and darks — and subtle composition were all components of the socio-political message. Since virtually all L’Assiette’s content was visual, it offered artists the room to breathe while experimenting with various rendering media, including woodcut, pen-and-ink, and lithographic crayon. Art Nouveau was dominant but not the sole style. The representational approach, void of stylistic flourish, was also effectively employed as polemical method. Toulouse Lautrec, whose poster style inspired considerable mimicry among many of the artists, was refused admittance into L’Assiette’s ranks because his art was deemed too superficial.

L’Assiette published weekly; its issues were based on single themes that scrutinized specific events or international personalities, such as Franz Kupka’s satiric trilogy devoted to “Money,” “Peace,” and “Religion.” Usually a single artist was responsible for all the artwork in an entire issue — approximately sixteen large-scale drawings (some reproduced in two or three colors). At various times groups of contributors were invited to tackle a particular bête noire, including the faulty judicial system, the hypocritical Catholic Church hierarchy, or the inept medical profession. The most memorable single issues of L’Assiette are those executed by artists with fervent biases, such as Vadasz on homosexuality, Veber on Reconcentration Camps in the Transvaal, Gris on Suicide, and Hermann-Paul on Lourdes, the religious retreat that he believed exploited atavistic superstitions.

"L'Argent," by François Kupka, from L’Assiette au Beurre, January 1902

Some graphic commentaries nibbled rather than took deep bites, such as those aimed at snobs, cafes, sports, high fashion, automobiles, and technology. A curiously provocative issue entitled Le Lit (the bed) was devoted to the sleeping habits of various social groups — from rich to poor, as well as married couples, prostitutes, and prisoners. Predications was a futuristic view of the human condition by Roubille. Another special issue was devoted to the second coming of Jesus Christ, this time resurrected into the “modern” fin de siècle world: It speculates on how the Son of God was repulsed by many deeds (i.e. those of organized religion) done in his name. Juan Gris’ pre-Cubist contributions revealed his fascination with geometric formulations predating his later experimental canvases. And Nabis artist, Felix Vallotton’s special issue of original lithographs, titled Crime and Punishments, exquisitely printed on heavy paper stock, wherein each, original stone lithograph is given an unprecedented single side of the page, are a masterpiece of brutish expressionism aptly representing the cruelty of France’s criminal system as well as punishments meted out by clergy and parents on children and adults alike.

All officials could be pilloried. Leal Da Camara’s issue titled Les Souvrain’s was complete with caricatures of the world’s leading monarchs. And no friendly or belligerent nation was beyond range of satiric ordinance: England, France’s historic enemy, was periodically attacked through caricatures of its leaders and farcical tableau for what L’Assiette’s editors described as heinous foreign polices, notably the establishment of the first 20th Century “concentration camps” for use during the Boer War to imprison Dutch South African civilians and combatants. L’Assiette’s few central European artists kept a watchful eye on the machinations of the Austro-Hungarian emperor and condemned his thirst for European dominance. But closer to home, the abusive treatment of black Africans in French colonies was also abhorred.

"La paix!...La paix!...Et notre carrière?...," by Gustave Henri Jossot, from L’Assiette au Beurre, February 1902

Particular rancor was reserved for la Belle France herself: For one special issue a group of L’Assiette’s contributors marshaled their journalistic fervor and critical zeal to reflect on a tragic ”accidental” gun powder factory explosion at Issy-les Moulineaux where hundreds of workers were killed owing to inadequate safety measures. Another exposé targeted a scandal involving a dairy company that knowingly distributed spoiled milk throughout Paris, resulting in fatalities among young children. In addition L’Assiette’s sharpest barbs and venomous graphic commentaries were reserved for French Papists.

L’Assiette was often banned by French authorities. On one occasion, one issue titled Les Cafes Concerts was coerced into being previewed by an ethics committee that stamped each acceptable drawing with Vise par Le Censor (passed by the censor). A frequent L’Assiette contributor, Aristide Delannoy, was arrested, sentenced to one year in jail, and fined 3000 francs for depicting General d’Amade, the military occupier of Morocco, as a butcher with blood-stained apron; later the same artist was threatened with imprisonment when he visually attacked the French leaders Briande and Clemenceau. Minor witch-hunts were practiced with L’Assiette as target and yet the efforts at prior restraint often backfired resulting in greater publicity and sales.

L’Assiette au Beurre made an impact on a generation and this continued after it ceased publication in 1911. Its spirit continued in satiric journals such as Le Mot, edited by Jean Cocteau and Le Temoin edited by Paul Iribe. But L’Assiette was the wellspring of critical and oppositional graphic journalism in France and the model for many satiric journals to follow. Today this kind of print media has been replaced by film, video, and TV, which in blander ways carry out the stinging comedies and stark satires of the past.

Posted in: History, Media

Comments [7]

The meat of this article introduces historical precedence of satire, from a particular time in history, from a particular region, but the title indicates a comparison will be made. I'm hoping to see part two - the comparison to our current state of "satire", especially of the graphic variety. The Onion, Colbert Report and now-defunct Spy come to mind immediately, but please illuminate me, where is the satirical graphic designer now?
Joshua Reese

Good question Joshua. Although, I tend to believe that there's just enough graphic satire out there, but I think our current design situation can almost be paralleled to music. The internet has put tools in the hands of a lot more people and the amount of mediocre design has mounted viciously. However, the amount of amazing design and its availability has also. Like in the era of the Beatles... their music was amazing but it was also at a time when they were of much fewer choices.

There's definitely satirical design out there, but quantity is massive and it's harder to see the best of it in a sea of everything else.
Collin Cummings

One of many graphic periodicals at the time, it not only critiqued the ruling classes but altered social mores in the process. Would that could be done today.

Criticizing ruling classes and bourgeois in these times with graphic design is still possible. But if designers are also part of the establishment then it contradicts our own moral values.

It needs moral responsibility towards oneself as a social human being and then as graphic designer. but am not sure about the impact of such graphic caricatures in contemporary world, where erosion of values and self centered lifestyle in the increase.

It may look good in print or pixel and an get an award and applause from the creative community in a star hotel reception.

But does the graphic change our morals?

Time will tell!
unnikrishna menon damodaran

Satirising brands seems to be the modern equivalent - with Nokia getting the treatment this week for its assistance to the Iranian government. We made a few observations on if this makes any difference to the brands here:
silas amos

Excellent article regaling the art history of France. I was honestly surprised to not see mention of Le Trec as he was one of the most famous designers to emerge from that country during that period of time. Additionally, would have liked to have read how design within that part of the world has evolved. Great start nonetheless!
Santa Rosa Graphic Design

Supporting Santa's comment, I'd love to see how French satire may have evolved, how it operates today.

I realize this is a historical piece but I can read about L'Assiette au Beurre in my Graphic Design History reader for university. Would love to see more contemporary content.

(Sadly, my educational design history books end with the introduction of the Mac computer).
Michele Champagne

Nice article regaling the art history of France. The artworks are great, really a good example of satire. I also would love to see how French satire may have evolved, how it operates today. Regards - Frederic Toan, collector of laptops for college students.
Frederic Toan

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