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“Honore Daumier”

At the Phillips Collection to May 14

It always takes time for a new mass-cultural technology to establish itself as a respectable art medium. As far as his reputation was concerned, Honore Daumier (1808-1879) had the misfortune of being foremost a lithographer, of working in a medium only 10 years older than he was. He suffered the further hindrance of being a cartoonist—and of actually being funny when circumstances called for it. If there were a three-strikes rule of artistic infraction, the troika of medium, genre, and temperament would long ago have consigned Daumier to the oubliette.

Though Daumier did hard time in real life (for pestering King Louis-Philippe, portraying his fat head as a plump pear, among other things), he was soon released and went on to have a long, productive career as a political gadfly. And though he was virtually forgotten in his later years, when dedication to painting kept him out of the public eye, the past century has been kind to his memory. Scores of books and exhibitions have been devoted to him; many more have used his topical work to illustrate episodes in the volatile history of 19th-century France. His satiric prints of doctors, lawyers, and teachers have won him admirers even among the professional classes he tweaked. And virtually every political cartoonist proudly claims him as a spiritual forefather.

But Daumier lacks the big-time rep of contemporaries no more deserving. Popular-art shame has confined him within the perimeters of a bespoke ghetto. Supporters have been trying to bust him out ever since friends organized a painting-heavy rent party/Republican fete for him at the Durand-Ruel Gallery the year before his death. That was the only one-man show the artist received during his lifetime (the idea of solo exhibition was actually in its infancy at the time), and it flopped. Perhaps not coincidentally, Daumier’s graphic work was banished, along with his caricatural sculpture, to a “Miscellaneous” section in the back of the accompanying catalog. The attempt to establish Daumier as a fine artist, rather than merely a caricaturist and provocateur, has continued to this day. The undertaking reaches its apex in a show—organized by the Phillips Collection, the French Reunion des Musees Nationaux, and the National Gallery of Canada—that assembles nearly 250 paintings, drawings, watercolors, sculptures, and, yes, lithographs, for the first all-medium Daumier retrospective since 1878.

At the Phillips, wall text informs us that “Honore Daumier was among the greatest artists of his century, and perhaps of all time.” There’s no disputing the claim, but it should be noted that such language is usually beneath museum scribes. Just imagine their substituting the name of David, Delacroix, or Manet—never. But in Daumier’s case, they seem concerned that you might not notice. And the means they are using to get your attention and sway you to the obvious conclusion are, at times, remarkably retardataire.

History painting occupied the top spot on the old academic hierarchy of painting, and the image being used as the exhibition’s main calling card and ad hook during its only U.S. stop is the Phillips’ own The Uprising, an entirely serious painting commemorating the Revolution of 1848—or the Paris Commune of 1871. (Daumier offers little assistance to scholars attempting to date his paintings.) According to Ottawa curator Michael Pantazzi, upon the canvas’s rediscovery in 1924, Daumier partisans took heart that “the artist who produced in lithography Rue Transnonain, 15 April 1834″—a hugely influential piece that depicts a family slaughtered in its apartment by the National Guard—”could paint a picture to rival it in historical significance and political impact.” More than a little wishful thinking has gone into the canonization of this widely exhibited piece. The catalog entry reveals significant disagreement about the amount of painting actually produced by Daumier’s hand; one authority suggests that the figures’ heads were painted by someone else. If no one acted as if Daumier’s greatness as an artist hinged on his ability to produce Important Painting, it wouldn’t matter so much where The Uprising came from. If Daumier had lived a little later, it would matter even less; by the time of his death, a generation of painters was coming of age that in no way relied on history painting to cement its reputation.

An accurate assessment of Daumier’s stature must accept his unconventionality, rather than attempt to recast it according to the modes of picturemaking dominant during his time. Daumier was an indoorsman; he worked well in tight spots. Rue Transnonain triumphed by giving government violence a domestic setting, shocking an audience that had grown used to seeing blood on the barricades but not in the bedroom. (Even when the settings didn’t draw on the intimate interiors of genre painting, he tended to squash his figures into tightly compressed foregrounds, as in the Musee d’Orsay’s The Thieves and the Ass, whose wrestlers threaten to pitch forward out of the picture.) Daumier’s work, painting included, feels urgent yet small, as befits a talent raised on graphics. The artist was accustomed to gaining import via the relevance of his subjects and the broad circulation of his images, not through the engineering of spectacle. He may have distorted, but he never overblew, placing his faith resolutely in the amplification gained through public reception. Though we must reject the implicit bias that would set Daumier’s paintings above his works in “lesser” media, we can only rejoice that they are receiving the widespread viewing that completes the efforts of any popular artist.

If the great paintings we are certain Daumier himself produced are underestimated, it is because they are built not like other great paintings of his day but like his own great prints, which always prize character and situation over atmosphere and space. Perhaps it can be attributed to his love of the theater, particularly theater of a humble sort, but Daumier’s structure seems less a matter of composition, in the traditional sense, than of mise-en-scene. And in two significant cases—paintings of Don Quixote and of collector/connoisseurs—the stages he set host treatments of the subtle, conflicted understanding the artist reached between his roles as public communicator and private creator.

Not for nothing does the Phillips group an extensive suite depicting the quest of Don Quixote with a couple of small oils of The Painter at His Easel. Daumier’s Quixote is a self-mocking distillation of the artist into his essence—a wispy figure traveling about, consecrating the barren landscape to the loftiness of his aim beneath the portable steeple of his upraised lance. Quixote’s life is a noble joke he unwittingly plays on himself; Daumier’s art is a way of knowingly living inside the joke.

If we haven’t recently renewed our acquaintance with the good Don, we’re likely to find that faulty memory has preserved only the mounted, impossible dreamer and has clouded over the basis of his adventures in a love of books, obscuring the fact that his travels result from a misguided attempt to act out the chivalric romances that have set up housekeeping in his imagination. The Australian National Gallery’s Don Quixote Reading takes us back to the beginning, to a scene not even Cervantes conceived. Though the priest and the barber surreptitiously look on, plotting, the sight of bare-legged Quixote, kicked back in the light and the heat with a stack of beloved volumes, is so mundane that we might forget we are witnessing a scene of madness. “In short, our gentleman became so immersed in his reading that he spent whole nights from sundown to sunup and his days from dawn to dusk in poring over his books, until, finally, from so little sleeping and so much reading, his brain dried up and he went completely out of his mind,” as Samuel Putnam’s translation has it. And how does Quixote’s mania manifest itself? Why, he goes out into the world to set it aright.

In other words, this man of action is, incongruously, unreasonably, a man of study, a man who engages the world from a distance and, though accompanied by a loyal helpmate, is ultimately alone. It’s a mark of no small humility and self-awareness that Daumier would take as his alter ego the bookish, erring knight errant. The political cartoonist turns his absorption of the news of the day into a call for action that returns to publication so that it may resound in the mind of the reader; likewise, Quixote’s tale begins and finally comes to rest in the peculiar crusading that can take place only on the printed page.

Like the book, the print lends itself to both wide distribution and private hoarding. Daumier’s populism didn’t prevent him from knowing the heart of the collector. From the 1860s on, Daumier returned repeatedly to the theme of the connoisseur, who, singly or in small groups, amasses for his walls and portfolios a catalog of humanity. As an observer who gathered in his work the physiognomies and characters of his fellow Parisians, Daumier, too, was a collector. The hunched figure in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s The Print Collector is a paragon of the shopper-aesthete, representative of a type today more likely to be found plowing through the offerings of a used-book shop or scouring the listings on eBay. Dug in at the heel, he cranes forward, concentrating the whole of his being into his gaze—but for occasional mental digressions into the secret calculus of lust and cash. For him, life is to be understood, yes, but it is also to be possessed.

Daumier’s significance, though, lies less in his self-awareness than in his other-awareness. He knew that the have-nots were not want-nots, and it is his sympathetic, complex portrayal of their desires, often in the lowly medium of the lithograph, that makes his greatness unassailable. And why shouldn’t it be? Daumier was a new kind of artist working in a culture ever new, one periodically upheaving in bouts of self-reinvention.

In forcing Daumier to the front lines, though, we risk neglecting his mastery of the incidental. If asked for a work to confirm his place in the pantheon, I would cite the lithograph The Crinoline in Winter, produced for the journal Le Charivari in 1858. In the face of the press restrictions of the Second Empire, Daumier turned increasingly to social satire, and political restraints only sharpened his wit. He packed unflappable bourgeois hauteur and gales of proletarian bitterness, envy, and resilience, all tinged with wistfulness, into a mere sliver of an encounter: A weary, rag-draped concierge asks a heavily bustled and snow-dusted dame, “—Fair lady…shall I sweep you off?….” The lady swans away in a solitary, silent parade of privilege, her too-small umbrella pinning her torso to the great globe of her skirts like a novelty toothpick sticking a cherry to a besprinkled ball of ice cream. She represents an entire unattainable world—so silly and so longed for.

I don’t see why an artist’s reputation shouldn’t revolve around such moments. Aren’t great artists simply the ones who make great pictures? CP