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Indomitable Daumier

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 25, 2000; Page N43

HAVE YOU seen this man?

"Physical description: 24 years of age. Turned up nose. Height 1.71 metres. Medium mouth. Black hair. Oval, protruding chin. Medium eyebrows. Oval face. Broad, flat forehead. Ordinary colouring. Grey eyes. Identifying marks: scar on upper forehead near hairline."

You may not recognize the criminal from the bland particulars in the police case file on him ("medium mouth," "medium eyebrows": how unhelpful is that?), but surely you're familiar with the crime. His malicious handiwork hangs in museums around the world and is currently being featured in a large retrospective at the Phillips Collection, an institution which would be accused of collusion if not for the fact that the victims and the perpetrator have been dead for more than a century.

"Honore Daumier" is both the name of the show and of the scoundrel whose devastating newspaper caricatures of politicians, lawyers and the ordinary citizenry of 19th-century Paris are only the best-known evidence of his artistic offenses. For, as this show makes clear, Daumier was more than just a character assassin with a mean lithographer's crayon, as everyone already knows. He was also a kinder and gentler observer of humanity, as testified to by his more gestural paintings of street life, distilling life down to its universal essence. "After all," says curator Michael Pantazzi, "there are only two or three ways to hold a child's hand, only two or three ways to sit on a train, and Daumier nailed them all."

And that's not all he nailed. In his lifetime (1808-1879), he produced some 4,000 blisteringly satirical drawings on limestone (74 of them are here) for such daily rags as Le Charivari and La Caricature. They show bored judges, officious bureaucrats, windbag attorneys and foolish members of the bourgeoisie, and they include the notorious one of King Louis-Philippe as "Gargantua." In that famous picture of 1931 (suppressed by the government before it ever ran), Louis-Philippe is depicted as Rabelais's behemoth, being fed a steady diet of cash from the common man, even as he excretes a flurry of awards, favors and medals for the fattened, toadying nobles milling about his posterior.

In fact, it was "Gargantua" that landed the artist in jail and earned him the nondescript verbal mug shot quoted above. Sentenced with a 500-franc fine and six months in jail (originally suspended) for inciting "hatred and contempt for the King's government and offenses against the person of the King," Daumier ultimately wound up in the slammer in 1932 when he failed to cease and desist from his caustic visual commentary.

Two years later, when he created the gut-wrenching "Rue Transnonain, 15 April 1834"--recording a National Guard massacre of civilians on April 14--Daumier was a household name. Day after day, people would rush to see images such as this: an imaginary view of the morning after, in which a dead father in a bloody nightshirt lies atop his dead baby. Strong stuff, even now, and yet Daumier cranked these pictures out at the rate of a few a week, no easy feat for someone Pantazzi describes as a "neurotically perfectionist man."

"If he was a writer," the curator adds, "he wouldn't have tolerated a spelling mistake, a comma out of place." How odd, then, that nowhere in his art is such labor apparent, even in the touched-up drawings and reworkings in which Daumier tinkers with the framing (several different versions of "The Print Collector") or the dimensions of a judicial bench ("The Testimony of a Minor"). Like few others, Daumier knew when a 30-minute sketch was sufficient (the elegantly sketchy 1867 "Don Quixote and the Dead Mule") or when he needed to paint and repaint ("Don Quixote Charging Sheep").

At his meanest, Daumier's art skewered the self-important ("A Famous Case"). At his mildest, as Henri Loyrette writes in the handsome and thick catalogue, he elevated "the everyday and the banal to the level of history painting." To some, who know and love Daumier chiefly from his caricatures, the paintings may seem to be missing something. Yet it is not merely his inattention to faces and his careful consideration of the larger dance of life that makes the paintings feel almost like the work of another artist. It is also that they are largely drained of the venom that flavors his prints. Contempt is replaced in them by affection.

They are, however, simply two different styles of caricature. On the one hand, Daumier's portrait prints and sculptured heads (36 small bronzes fill a glass display case) capture likeness by heightening detail, whereas the more poetic paintings and drawings--of bathers, railway riders, mythological scenes and literary characters--boil likeness down to an essence. One exaggerates, while the other abbreviates, yet each approaches the same thing from the opposite side.

That's the one thing most astonishing about "Honore Daumier" (both the exhibit and the man). In those twin abilities--his gift for blowing out of proportion and of abridgement--he never lost sight of the reality of the thing portrayed, whether it was emerging from a bramble of tentative ink lines or suggested with one deft stroke of white paint.

We remember him because we laugh at his bug-eyed, loose-fleshed fools, but we apparently need to be reminded, every hundred years or so, that in a very real sense his eye influenced movements as far apart as French Impressionism and filmmaking.

"In some ways," says Pantazzi, "the greatest child Daumier ever had was Degas." Look at Daumier's bathers, actors and tumblers, and this seems no hyperbole. Now think of Sergei Eisenstein's use of montage in "Battleship Potemkin" or Orson Welles's innovative camera placement in "Citizen Kane" and you won't have too much trouble believing that the great directors could have flipped through picture books of Daumier in order to get ideas.

"There is a difference between the true artist and the imitator," Pantazzi says. "For the artist, your heros are what you consume, and then you move on, while the imitator is flattened by the hero. Daumier, from whom so many pilfered, pilfered from no one."

HONORE DAUMIER -- Through May 14 at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW (Metro: Dupont Circle). 202/387-2151. Web site: www.phillipscollection.org. Open 10 to 5 Tuesdays through Saturdays; Thursday evenings to 8:30; Sundays noon to 7. Admission to "Honore Daumier" is $10, seniors and students $7, 18 and under free. Advance tickets are available through Ticketmaster (service charge applies). Call 202/432-7328. Admission to the permanent collection (voluntary on weekdays) is $7.50, seniors and students $4, 18 and under free. After 5 on Thursdays, admission to the permanent collection is $5.

Public programs associated with the exhibition include:

March 2 at 6 and 7 -- Gallery talk: "Parisian Satire and Sympathies: Daumier's Heroism of Modern Life." Free with exhibition ticket.

March 9 at 6 and 7 -- Gallery talk: "Heir to Daumier in America: John Sloan's Urban Realism." Free with exhibition ticket.

March 16 at 6 and 7 -- Gallery talk: "Daumier's Dilemma: Cartoonist or Painter?" Free with exhibition ticket.

March 23 at 6 and 7 -- Gallery talk: "Daumier's Contemporaries: French Romantics and Realists." Free with exhibition ticket.

March 25 from 9 to 10:15 -- "Picturing Performers." A family tour of the special exhibition and the permanent collection, focusing on the world of the performer as seen through the eye of the artist. $7 for each adult/child pair. All children must be accompanied by an adult and reservations are required. Call 202/387-2151, Ext. 247.

March 30 at 6 and 7 -- Gallery talk: "Painting Performers: From Delacroix to Degas." Free with exhibition ticket.

March 30 at 6:30 -- "Daumier Under the Microscope." Museum conservator Elizabeth Steele presents a slide lecture and gallery tour on Daumier's innovative techniques and unconventional use of material. Free with exhibition ticket.

April 5 at 7 -- Film: "Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise)." Screening at the French Embassy, 4101 Reservoir Rd. NW. $5 tickets available at the door (discount offered with exhibition ticket stub). For reservations and information, call 202/944-6091.

April 6 at 6 and 7 -- Gallery talk: "Daumier's Versatility and Vision: A Master of Painting, Printmaking and Sculpture." Free with exhibition ticket.

April 8 from 9:30 to 12:30 -- "Smiles and Frowns--A Daumier Workshop." A family tour of the exhibition, focusing on Daumier's gift for caricature and gesture. $15 for each adult/child pair. All children must be accompanied by an adult and reservations are required. Call 202/387-2151, Ext. 247.

April 9 and 16 from 10 to 1 -- "From Action to Image--The Artistic Process of Honore Daumier." A two-part workshop for beginning art students includes hands-on drawing assignments. $35. Advance registration required. Call 202/387-2151, Ext. 216.

April 20 at 6 and 7 -- Gallery talk: "Mocking the Monarchy: Daumier's Caricatures of a King." Free with exhibition ticket.

April 27 at 6 and 7 -- Gallery talk: "A Passionate Line: Daumier's Legacy to van Gogh." Free with exhibition ticket.

May 4 at 6 and 7 -- Gallery talk: "For the Defense: Daumier's Courtroom Dramas." Free with exhibition ticket.

May 11 at 6 and 7 -- Gallery talk: "Strange Bedfellows--Daumier and the Uneasy Alliance between Artist and Collector." Free with exhibition ticket.

May 11 at 6 and 7 -- Gallery talk: "Two Romantic Crusaders: Daumier and Don Quixote." Free with exhibition ticket.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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