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A Great Judge of Caricature
At the Daumier Show, One Political Cartoonist Admires a Master's Gift

By Pat Oliphant

Sunday, February 20, 2000; Page G08

Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist Pat Oliphant visited the Phillips Collection's new special exhibition of the works of Honore Daumier, the 19th-century French artist best known for his political satire. Speaking artist to artist, Oliphant tells of the inspiration Daumier gave him and of the nature of repression of political commentary today.

Monsieur Daumier, you certainly are a humbler.

I have been on an intravenous drip-feed of your work for a good part of my life, catching a few drawings here, a small exhibition there, collecting your books, studying the lithographs, and always finding something new. I've seen your work in New York, London, Paris, St. Petersburg and different parts of Australia, and always I regarded what I was seeing with a heavy measure of awe and respect.

I learned from you that caricature--and, by natural extension, political cartooning--is a language unto itself, with shades and accents to its vocabulary prompted by the happenings of the day. It is an art of symbols, and where no symbols exist one must invent them. The pear-shaped symbol you employed to represent the king is a touch of subversive genius.

I was aware that they had hauled you off to the slammer for your disrespectful depictions of Louis-Phillipe, and it is enlightening to see the offending drawing itself in the context of your other work of the period.

I suppose the forces of repression have always been with us. You worked in tumultuous times, and great cartooning seems to be born of disruption. When this country had a similar experience in the 1960s and early 1970s, the cartooning was correspondingly good. And our King Richard Milhous would have happily imprisoned us all.

These days we have our own Cour d'assises called Political Correctness, which has the same deadening effect on expression as your six-month sentence, but without the drama. We can't be jailed today for offending, but we can be denied a forum--denial spawned by the Fear to Offend. Sad to say, friend Daumier, if you were working today, you would probably not be working.

But Monsieur Daumier--this show at the Phillips Collection has to be seen to be believed! Looking at your lithographs, I ask myself: How did he do that?--one a day, year after year, for years at a time.

What a wonderful medium is lithography! The range and subtlety of the middle tones. The deep, velvety blacks. What a visual treat!

Although they were drawn for the moment, these works survive as art, even if one is unaware of the issues and the subject matter. It is the consummate artistry and the draftsmanship that we are left to admire. You seem to have been able to imbue every drawing, lithograph and painting with an urgent, surging sense of movement.

In "The Refugees," for instance--that tiny painting with such a thunderous presence--are the figures hunched in struggling advance against the winds of some unseen disaster? Or are they being swept along from behind like so many hapless tumbleweeds? It is all about movement.

The series on lawyers brims with the same energy. Look at those flowing robes swelled with gusts of histrionic pomposity! I envy the fashions of your times that afforded such props for your drawings. We still have lawyers today, as you may have heard--but it's difficult to get the same dynamics from a pinstripe suit.

Your sculptures of the legislators are masterpieces. I was surprised to learn that you didn't like drawing from life, preferring to model the features in clay and then draw from the sculpture. Studying them, I was able to pick out a Claude Pepper, a Strom Thurmond, a Ronald Reagan, even a Nixon. But again I must envy your subject matter, and only partly is it a matter of dress. No legislative body that I know of today could possibly offer such a rich cornucopia of character faces. In these more prosaic times we are stuck with Trent Lott.

Monsieur Daumier, you were an incredible chronicler of your times. I was recently struck by a quote from Henry James that you may like to hear. "Social and political caricature," he wrote, "is . . . journalism made doubly vivid." He got that right.

"Honore Daumier" is at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW, through May 14. Call 202-387-2151 for admission prices and information.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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