Honore Daumier was a French anti monarchist, starkly anti-royalist, a republican, who made republican art. I first spoke about Daumier & my enthusiasm for his work on law, justice & morality here.
His pre-occupation with social commentary, with satirizing & lampooning 19th-century French politics & society, the French bourgeoisie, his contempories & political players, including the legal profession, was not surprising given that republicans, generally, took on monarchies to get rid of autocratic rule & privilege in favour of justice for the people.
Starting in about 1830, Daumier became well known for his social & political commentary, his cartoons & caricature, mainly through visual satire & art, much of it quite provocative in the years leading up to the French Revolution & for which he was punished, imprisoned, by King Louis-Philippe.
He became a contributor to the opposition liberal journal La Caricature.
The image above, “Gargantua”, was printed in La Caricature‘ in 1832. It is of course, Louise-Phillipe & quite self explanatory. No wonder Louis-Phillipe was mad at Daumier. The provocative “Gargantua” landed Daumier in prison for 6 months for insulting the King.
This image is Daumier’s portrayal of Louis as a large pear which was also a pun – the French word “poire” meaning imbecile or fool. Note that Louis-Phillipe’s expressions on the three-faced pear change from a sort of smile on the left to a malevolent scowl on the right. This image did not land Daumier in prison. Must have been close.
Louis- Phillipe generally tolerated jokes at his expense, but, when unduly provoked, rather than bring suit against a paper, he preferred to seize it, a procedure that meant ruin for its staff and financial backers. Only once during his reign did he deal severely with an offender—with Daumier in 1832, and then only after the second of the artist’s most violent attacks. Sentenced to six months in prison, Daumier spent two of them in the state prison and four in a mental hospital, the king apparently wanting to show that one had to be mad to oppose and caricature him.
After his release in February 1833, Daumier was never again indicted, even though in his cartoons he continued to attack a regime, a form of society, and a concept of life that he scorned, while at the same time creating unforgettable characters. Daumier’s types were universal: businessmen, lawyers, doctors, professors, and petits bourgeois. His treatment of his lithographs was sculptural, leading Balzac to say about him that he had a bit of Michelangelo under his skin.
But it’s Daumier’s satirical renditions of the law courts, the judges & lawyers, his obvious disdain for the legal profession that draws me most.
At the time Daumier observed rank judicial incompetence. He saw judges & lawyers as participants in a corrupt judicial system disregarding the needs of the ordinary people. He saw a legal system with complete disregard for justice contrary to all that lawyers profess to stand for.
Which brings me to his piece above, ‘les pieces a conviction’ (c. 1865-1868), or ‘The Incriminating Evidence’. Have you looked at it? It’s one of the many narratives he created depicting a legal theme.
We see the courtroom, the judges, the evidence. We see the grim faced judges looking bored, tired & disinterested, perhaps smug & arrogant, even threatening, as they ignore the evidence.
On the table in front of the bench is the evidence which looks like a bloodied shirt with a knife next to it. The shirt looks to be in the shape of a person, the victim, with right arm hanging over the table.
Behind them on the courtroom wall is an image of the feet of Christ nailed to the cross. The rest of Christ, above the knees, is cut off.
What, then, is Daumier saying? What might his message be? Is not the piece conspicuous for what it doesn’t say about the crime, the evidence & the verdict?
Does Daumier want us to find a narrative?
What is the meaning of showing only Jesus’ feet nailed to the cross?
Is the piece about a fair trial, the right to a fair trial?
Is it about the presumption of innocence? Liberty & justice? The rule of law?
Is Daumier wanting us to believe the Judges ignored the principals of a fair trial?
Is Daumier criticising the legal system, reminding us of the corrupt judiciary?
Is the piece one of moral satire? Is it about about sin? About right & wrong? Evil moral values?
Perhaps Daumier is saying the judges have already decided the outcome, that defendant is guilty. The judges reversed the presumption where the defendant is not innocent ’til proven guilty but guilty ’til proven innocent. No need to forensically evaluate the evidence on the table. An eye for an eye is fine, judicial lex talionis. Any trial would be a sham, a waste of time.
What about the image of an eviscerated Jesus behind the contemptuous & menacing judges? Is this perhaps Daumier’s way of depriving the legal process of the rules of fairness, justice & humanity, of mercy & forgiveness, represented by Christ? Jesus didn’t get a fair trial.
Daumier knew justice could be a tortuous & cruel endeavour in a corrupt legal system as in France at the time. Rank judicial incompetence meant a complete disregard for morality & justice.
Jesus was menaced, bullied & abused leading up to & on his way to Calvary & during his crucifixion. There was no interest in a fair trial, in justice, in mercy, for him. Only lex talionis.