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Peace for Paris

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THIS MONTH, on a Friday evening in London, Jean Jullien allowed himself to be moved by the horror of the moment. His native neighborhood in Paris had just been attacked by jihadists, hundreds felled by gunfire in a night’s sudden spasms of coordinated violence, and Jullien, an illustrator and designer, felt compelled to react through art. So he picked up his instrument of precision and let his dipped bristles do the talking in a loose, laptop sketchbook. The bold strokes were quick, the black ink letting in the mottled lightness of hope. And against the shadow of evil, Jullien’s sure brush bent toward our better angels.

The Eiffel Tower and the peace sign, two iconic symbols fused as one in a flash of inspiration, resonated with a sum power greater than its parts. It was strong in its starkness, poetic in its simplicity. Immediacy dictated process, and passion navigated the hand, with the result landing true.

“Peace for Paris,” Jullien captioned the work, as he sent it out into the world buoyed by the mission of message. From the Frenchman’s social-media accounts, the image gained a global platform; it was swiftly adopted and shared hundreds of thousands of times on Instagram and Facebook that weekend, and was soon viewed by millions.

It didn’t matter that nearly all who saw it were experiencing not the raw original image, but rather a digital representation. The force of its swift lines transcended format, as if the brush had been tethered to a heartstring. From the art to the artist himself, everything clicked as honest expression and genuine engagement. It was image as authentic experience. That is what spoke to viewers of “Peace for Paris” and sparked its becoming a symbol of more than the latest terror attacks in France. It rang as powerful in its larger urging for nonviolence and seemed, in a broader context, like an appeal for healing in a city battered this year by assaults sometimes linked to illustration in the first place.

Within Jullien’s quick, intentionally unburnished circle, it was as if the artist wanted to representationally stop the cycle. Stop the provocation and quell the fury and cease the madness, at least long enough to recuperate and recover.

As a call to disarm, “Peace for Paris” offered a narrative arc of triumph through humanity. But to appreciate the image’s true weight, it’s important to consider it of a piece with how France’s 2015 began.

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The offices of Charlie Hebdo had been attacked before, by radical terrorists enraged by the satirical weekly’s depiction of the Islamic prophet Muhammad and its larger cartoon commentary on Muslims. The small, Paris-based publication had lampooned religion for decades, of course, but had found itself particularly targeted for violence after supporting the artists involved in the 2005 Danish powderkeg that became the “Muhammad cartoon crisis.” Then, in 2011, the day after the magazine made Muhammad its “editor in chief” for an issue, Charlie Hebdo’s offices were firebombed, forcing a relocation. The weekly, however, was undeterred amid threats to its freedom of expression. “I’d rather die standing,” said Hebdo editor and cartoonist Stephane “Charb” Charbonnier, who had begun living under police protection, “than live on my knees.”

This past January, that quote, in effect, became Charb’s epitaph. When 12 people, including five cartoonists, were killed by extremists in a massacre at the Hebdo offices, everything changed. Much of the world mourned as it consoled France and “Je suis Charlie” became the rally cry of ocean-spanning fraternite.

Even as it was hotly debated in some quarters whether Charlie Hebdo had incited violence no matter how uncondoned — and whether a pattern of knowingly offensive cartoons can be viewed as an act of provocation — there was no question that artwork was at the center of the controversy. So it was a blunt statement of defiant pride when for its first post-attack issue, Charlie Hebdo ran a cover cartoon depicting a weeping Muhammad himself holding a “Je suis Charlie” sign, beneath the headline, “All is forgiven.”

Now, to understand how satirizing taboo became so de rigueur in the national conversational embrace of the “irresponsible” is to appreciate how France’s cartoons and cultural politics are inextricably intertwined like braided DNA. In the land of the Louvre, cartooning is upheld as the “ninth art.” Gallic illustration as editorial expression has a golden history, with a vibrancy dating back to the French Revolutionary era, and an especial potency dating to Louis Philippe’s reign nearly two centuries ago, when the caricature-rich political slings of Grandville ascended toward the throne, and Daumier — who so famously satirized high corruption, high incompetence and the higher classes — was imprisoned for six months, in 1832, for lampooning the king.

That long proud heritage still burbled in the French groundwater when Hara-Kari, Charlie Hebdo’s precursor, sprung up in 1960, brimming with the bold and the ribald, the lascivious and the lewd. And this was a publication that found popularity with the generation of the 1968 Paris student protests, and inspired such young minds as Francoise Mouly, the French-born artist who would later visit the Charlie Hebdo offices and watch these cartoonists sit around together for hours, drawing under a midweek deadline as they feasted on wine and bread and their common appetite for trying to shock and entertain and inspire each other.

In the immediate wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, cartoonists the globe over responded through their art, condemning through ink the brutal violence and championing through paint the freedom of the press. And one of those journalists who had a high-profile canvas was Mouly herself, now art director at The New Yorker magazine. Poring over submitted sketches, she hired Madrid-based artist Ana Juan, who had rendered a powerful New Yorker artwork for a 9/11 anniversary issue, to create a cover that responded to the Hebdo attack. And so, for the Jan. 19 issue, Juan delivered a stark, nearly silhouetted Eiffel Tower; at its base is a gritty splash of blood-rich crimson; and at the top, the structure rises to form a red-tipped pencil. Mouly said she felt “the sobriety and the simplicity” of the art, and Juan said the illustration made sure “the pen of the artist gets the last word.”

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All of that was open-wound prologue for Jean Jullien’s artistic stage.

After at least 130 people were killed at several Paris venues on the evening of Nov. 13, Jullien said he was moved by “heartfelt emotion” to create. But it’s worth noting that responding to tragedy and turmoil is not Jullien’s stock in trade. Study his portfolio, and scroll through his social-media postings, and you enjoy an artist who comfortably lives in the world of whimsy. His black lines breathe loose and friendly, whether he’s illustrating technology or office pets or his recent debut as a children’s book author, with “Hoot Owl.”

Go back just to January, to Jullien’s artistic response to the Hebdo massacre, and even his rendering of a pencil jamming a gun barrel is almost playful, toying as it does with the juxtaposition of the lethal and the peaceful — in the same visual vein as that of teenage American war protestor George “Hibuscus” Harris, who in 1967, as captured in a famous photo, put flowers down the rifle barrels of National Guard members in Washington. Jullien even writes “Je suis Charlie” in warm white-on-black cursive, as if creating his art on a school blackboard.

Something kept Jullien, though, from injecting even unintentional whimsy into “Peace for Paris.” Perhaps it is, again, that immediacy of the moment. Perhaps he sensed that drawing the human presence — as evident in his “Je suis Charlie” image — would muddy the message. Or perhaps he simply realized, after creating his Eiffel peace sign, that no more needed to be said. Why blunt the tip of an arrow when its sharp point has been made?

And by keeping it perfect in its raw simplicity, the tip of the Tower breaking the sign’s circle like rising hope, Jullien hit a viral bull’s-eye.

Timing was key to the image’s hyper-sharing, as was Jullien’s nationality, but the lightning-in-a-bottle inspiration that Jullien discovered needed to be delivered in a way that, through those “unfinished” lines, struck us on a level raw and visceral. There is a pure response to be understood here.

If there’s one thing we can’t fake in our coolly pixelated world of curated realities and tidy avatars and manicured profiles and Photoshopped selfies — one in which the touch screen often trumps the human touch — it is this: our true and undeniable hunger for authenticity. Amid our electronic existences, we are still hard-wired to crave the palpable — to feel the real.

Even when entertainment content is king, we still deeply desire to be moved by truth rendered well. There is even an art to truthful artifice: If the engagement feels honest, it can circle the globe faster than the speed of a French city’s light.

What the “Peace for Paris” also delivers, of course, is an emotional balm after yet more blasts to a city’s psyche. About a week later, Charlie Hebdo published a cover that, in its own profane way, declared a cultural victory over terror, as an effervescent Frenchman riddled with bullets guzzled Champagne, the fizzy liquid spilling from his wounds.

So in a year bookended by the tragedies of terror, France, true to its legacy since the lithograph, was turning to cartoons and illustration to help heal itself.

Charb, the Hebdo editor who was gunned down in January, made a statement about what he was willing to die for. By year’s end, though, such cartoonists as Jullien are making a different statement. Through the emotion-laced magic of their lines, they are saying that in France, it is art — and culture at large — that helps make life worth living in the first place.