Political and Social Change and its Depictions in 19th Century French and English Caricature: Decapitation, Dismemberment, and Defecation

By Ryan P . O'Donnell
2011, Vol. 3 No. 08 | pg. 1/2 |
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The function of caricature within the public sphere can be described as a subversive weapon.1 It can be said that caricature as a subversive medium can function as an instigator of social, political and artistic change within a social framework.

Within eighteenth and nineteenth century society, particularly Revolution-era (1789-1799, beginning with the destruction of the Bastille, continuing to 18 brumaire and the Consulate of Napoleon)2 , caricature’s primary purpose stood to attack and transgress a number of bodies, within both their own countries, and their oppositional counterparts. This essay discusses the role of caricatures and cartoons in promoting political and social change during the eighteenth and nineteenth century. The first section examines the caricature as an instrument of social change. The nexy section examines the of caricature within France, and the subsequent attack of monarchical systems of government, leading to changing perceptions of the monarch figure and implications of censorship. The third section examines satirical caricature’s attack of the Church, and its questioning of both the role of in society and the differentiation between church and state. The essay concludes with a discussion of caricature and cartoons as an instigator of social and political change.

In Caricature and the Revolution[3], Michael Melot writes on caricature as a “subversive weapon” as such:

Caricature is a subversive weapon whereby a political model is dismantled by means of an aesthetic model. The caricaturist perverts the rules of ideal representation in order to create the image of a human figure who is himself a representative of authority. Hence, in caricature there is a transgression (of an aesthetic norm) for the purpose of aggression (against a social model).4

Melot suggests that caricature’s role then is to deconstruct the political hierarchy polemically by means of an aesthetic medium for means of dissemination by a mass audience. As a destructive and reconstructive/re-structuralising medium, the caricature serves as an ideal form as an instigator of social change within a period of revolution.5

Within a period of revolution, social hierarchy experiences a process of degradation and regeneration. The hierarchical principle temporarily regresses to a point in which a situation is created where experimentation with paradigmatic forms is necessary for a return to a functioning social hierarchy. Within any one caricature, a similar model can be observed. The caricaturist strips down an established form to its bare signification, providing a construct for which experimentation, critique and commentary can occur. Building from this, a paradigmatic shift occurs as a result of the stigmatisation and problematisation of the previous established order. This structural similarity between the caricature medium and social upheaval itself lends itself to the revolutionary character of caricature, presenting itself as an ideal medium for promoting change.

It is further suggested that the Freudian definition of “the joke”6 contributes highly to the caricature’s function. Due to its strongly gestural and automatist qualities, the caricature communicates more immediately to audiences through a regressive function that invokes unconscious associations. It is a medium whose primary goal is dissemination by a large audience.

Within the context of eighteenth and nineteenth century society, the caricature aims not to appeal strictly to the aristocracy, yet instead addresses an emerging class—the middle class bourgeoisie. As the bourgeoisie began to emerge, so too did a new audience for artistic consumption. Prior to this, the consumption of visual was strictly limited to an elite aristocratic audience. Caricature’s place within the visual culture of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries signifies not only a new audience, but also the emergence of a new set of social concerns and values. Caricature flourished primarily as a result of the rise of commercial print, the banalisation of the portrait, and the birth of the engraving of current events.7 The visual nature of the medium allowed for further consumption of caricature and cartoon by members of the lower class, a large number of whom were illiterate. Though while the visual nature of caricature did allow for wider dissemination among members of the lower classes, this does not necessarily mean that it was at all cared for or appreciated. Melot suggests that “[c]aricature was too sophisticated and perhaps suspected of a frivolity that was useless in the struggle of the lower classes.”8

The years between 1789-1799 in France mark a break in the administrative centralisation of French , and frame the struggle towards the democratisation of French society. Cuno suggests that during this period, the publication of caricatures were encouraged due to the fact that oppositional sides lampooned one another in debates centred around the authority of the monarchy, the position of the clergy, the role of the Third Estate, and the return of the émigrés.9 The first primary focus of caricature and graphic satire can be then seen to centre on shifting perceptions of monarchical systems of government, more specifically, the notion of the monarch as an individual, questioning monarchical authority. Through the exaggeration of an individual’s physiognomy within caricature, features that distinguish the individual are isolated and stressed, thus unmasking and revealing further perceptions of the subject’s character. Cuno further suggests then that to be the subject of such mild ridicule confirmed an individual as having attained an elevated position and could be “brought down”.10 Portrayal of the monarchy by graphic satirists then signifies a cultural attempt to question and transgress monarchical authority.

In combination with physiognomic amplification, humour plays a significant role within caricature in its capacity to undermine or attack. Freud remarks on the role of the joke in this capacity as such:

Where a joke is not an aim in itself—that is, where it is not an innocent one—there are only two purposes that it may serve, and these two can themselves be subsumed under a single heading. It is either a hostile joke (serving the purpose of aggressiveness, satire, or defence) or an obscene joke (serving the purpose of exposure). 11

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