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Honoré Daumier, comedy, and resistance in nineteenth-century France

In a moment when the repression of political ideas is resurgent, the art of Honoré Daumier offers a powerful example of creative resistance in the face of stifling censorship. Most famous as a political cartoonist who gained early notoriety for being jailed for a caricature of the king, Daumier continued to test the electric fence of shifting censorship laws with experimental portrait strategies and subversive reinterpretations of seventeenth-century literature. Daumier’s engagement with seventeenth-century texts emerged from the same commitment to political dissent as his work caricaturing the contemporary world and intensified in periods when political material was censored in the illustrated press. This book examines Daumier’s deep and abiding engagement with Jean de La Fontaine, Molière, and Miguel de Cervantes in sculpture, print, and painting, contextualizing his citations within the broader popular revivals of these authors who were masters of dissimulation and critique in their own time. The artworks examined in this book functioned as critiques of the repressive authority of the government in large part because their publics understood Daumier’s appropriation of La Fontaine, Molière, and Cervantes as coded forms of subversive dissent. The authors offered vital representational strategies to the visual arts, and their famous characters, narratives, and motifs allowed Daumier to filter his political statements through a newly glorified literary past. Literature, theatre, and politics converge in Daumier’s oeuvre in a way that is unique in art history, demonstrating the force of the artist’s role in broader stories of image–text relationships and subversive political expression.

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Erin Duncan-O’Neill

Daumier’s early series Celebrities of the juste milieu, c.1832–35, is a vital first case study to understand the artist’s first negotiations with fragile expansions to political freedom and the short-lived abolition of censorship. It is a series of clay portrait sculptures of French parliamentary deputies that served as models for the artist’s own caricatures in print. A popular myth claimed that the artist smuggled clay in his pocket during visits to parliament, signalling that the plaster statuettes both memorialized the urgent fragility of new freedoms in the July Monarchy and preserved access to the newly-opened legislative chamber. Drawing from traditions of puppetry and caricature, the Celebrities series satirized contemporary efforts to memorialize ‘great men’, using the comic mask to mock politicians’ artificiality and deception as well as calling on traditions of popular protest. Playing with the threshold between likeness and exaggeration, these caricatural portraits are shown to mediate between imitation and malformation, theorizing the mechanisms of satire in visual form.

in Art against censorship
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Redrafting Italian graphic design
Chiara Barbieri

As the introduction began by challenging the birthdate and place of Italian graphic design, so the conclusion reaffirms that its supposed ‘birth’ was in fact a long and uneven process that bridged the war years and never reached a definitive and uncontested outcome. After briefly summarising the content of the book, the conclusion pulls together the arguments made in the preceding chapters in order to describe how the articulation of graphic design practice in Milan can be understood as resulting from a complex relationship of factors. It shows how semantic shifts were evidence of changes in the way graphic design practice was being understood in Milan between the 1930s and 1960s. It expresses the book’s contribution to modernism studies through an emphasis on local networks and power relations, a close reading of primary sources, and a focus on design practice, education and mediation. Finally, the conclusion affirms the richness of using a graphic design-based approach to think about Italian design and culture, as well as the potential of applying this approach to other geographies and historical periods. More contemporary perspectives on the topic of graphic design practice in Italy are also offered to demonstrate that professionalisation is an open-ended process.

in Italian graphic design
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Erin Duncan-O’Neill

Present-day book bans of graphic novels demonstrate the power of word and image to communicate together. Well into the twenty-first century, images are still considered to be one of the most dangerous methods of speech because, like the theatre, they primarily rely on readers’ understanding of the gesture and expression of bodies and faces, which are legible to populations considered particularly impressionable and dangerous to the long-term interests of the state. Daumier negotiated changing censorship laws during his career and offered an instructive set of case studies for the sublimation of ideas during periods when promised freedoms were revoked. A frequent theme that he underscored was power: who wields it, how it is taught, how it is accessed, what it masks, its general type and specific contours. Daumier was one of the sharpest theorists and canniest actors exploring the boundaries of speech, subversive revival, and creative disobedience – questions that remain open and urgent today.

in Art against censorship
Chiara Barbieri

Chapter 4 develops two lines of argument: first, it suggests that for Milan’s graphic designers teaching was a means of collectively defining their practice; secondly, it argues that in the post-war period education was a key factor in the broader quest to imbue design with social value and cultural meaning. The Scuola del Libro and the Convitto Scuola Rinascita serve as case studies to explore the experimental intermediate phase of design education in Italy and for investigating the social values and political stance acquired by both design education and practice in post-war Milan. There taught a community of practitioners who furthered the ongoing articulation of Italian graphic design practice by contributing to transnational exchanges on design pedagogy and practice. Looking at international design conferences, design organisations, magazines and educational experiences abroad, the chapter shows how domestic and international debates over the economic and cultural impact of design mirrored a growing interest in design education. Macro historical narratives are approaches through the lenses of design education and practice with a focus on the Cold War rewriting of the Bauhaus legacy and the constructed nature of post-war discourses around modernism.

in Italian graphic design
Erin Duncan-O’Neill

Daumier first explored intersections between great art and laughter in his early paintings inspired by Jean de La Fontaine, establishing himself as an artist in line with celebrated satirists of the French literary canon. La Fontaine’s Fables allowed Daumier and his fellow caricaturists to make allusions to contemporary political issues in the 1830s when direct political speech was restricted in the illustrated press. These fables were ubiquitous in French schools in the nineteenth century, even though La Fontaine’s reputation placed him in an adversarial role with King Louis XIV. Their familiar moral messages and meditations on power helped nineteenth-century caricaturists express anxieties about the king’s overreach and the suppression of the opposition press. La Fontaine later became the subject of Daumier’s first painting submission to the Salon, The miller, his son, and the ass in 1849. This chapter explores the popularity of La Fontaine’s fables in 1830s caricature and academic painting at mid-century and interrogates the role of humour in ‘great art’. It establishes Daumier’s The miller, his son, and the ass as an early and profound statement of the artist’s commitment to literary satire, arguing that this work shows him working out a balance between abstraction and contemporaneity in his painting practice.

in Art against censorship
Chiara Barbieri

Chapter 3 explores the relationship between graphic designers and the Milan Triennale from 1933 to 1957. First, the Triennale is approached as a mediating channel: a public platform to showcase the criteria of good taste and improve public understanding of the practice. Secondly, the Triennale is explored as a commissioning body: an institutional client which commissioned graphic practitioners to design its own visual identity. While showing continuity in the drafting of the practice between the interwar and post-war period, the chapter also addresses the adaptation of design discourses to changing political circumstances. For instance, it traces the critical debates that gradually associated modernist aesthetics with the notion of good taste over two decades. At the same time, it problematises the malleability of modernist graphics as a vehicle of ideologies beyond the design realm. Indeed, an analysis of fascist political exhibitions and propaganda displays – such as the Mostra della Rivoluzione Fascista in Rome – brings into question the association with democratic and humanist ideals that modernist aesthetics acquired in the post-war period. Chapter 3 also suggests that exhibition design offered practitioners a means of working in three dimensions and experimenting in dialogue with architects and others outsider the typography workshop.

in Italian graphic design
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Erin Duncan-O’Neill

Honoré Daumier’s first paintings appeared on the walls of his prison cell. In 1832 he received a six-month sentence for exciting hatred against and offending the person of the king for the caricature Gargantua, a brutal condemnation of the king’s corruption. In his cell he defiantly rendered Gargantua again, a first act of painting that was a statement of contemporary political speech made through the force of a well-known literary motif. Daumier’s father, a glazier who aspired to be a poet and playwright, was an important source for the artist’s deep and abiding interest in literature and the theatre. This chapter examines formative moments in Daumier’s early career, including the very real consequences of censorship laws on the young artist and the explosion of the book industry that developed innovative new ways to marry word and image.

in Art against censorship
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Drafting Italian graphic design
Chiara Barbieri

The book begins in 1933 in Milan, traditionally considered to be the birthdate and place of modern Italian graphic design. The historiographical canon is challenged, and a key premise of the book is set: professionalisation is an ongoing process of becoming and practices are in a constant state of formation and under continuous renegotiation. First, the introduction locates graphic design in Italian design history. It stresses the uneven state of the historiography and criticises its inward-looking attitude. Secondly, the introduction explains the book’s approach to design practice as a historically constructed and socially produced concept. It draws on existing literature within design history scholarship, sociology and the history of the professions. Thirdly, the introduction explains how the book fits with existing scholarship on modernism: it clarifies how it understands the term and how it seeks to complicate linear narratives and overcome a tendency towards the aesthetic perspective and a focus on design celebrities. Lastly, it suggests the book’s approach towards Italian Fascism and its attempt to explore the impact of Fascism on everyday life and practice. A brief consideration of primary sources precedes the chapter synopsis.

in Italian graphic design
Culture and practice in Milan, 1930s–60s
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Italian graphic design: Culture and practice in Milan, 1930s–1960s explores the articulation of graphic design practice in Italy from the interwar period to the mid-1960s. By offering a critical and historical analysis of the role that graphic design has played in Italian design culture, it contributes to a more diverse, inclusive and contextualised understanding of Italian design and visual culture. Focusing on educational issues, transnational networks, organisational strategies, mediating channels and discourses on modernism, the book explores graphic designers’ continual adaptation to shifting economic, political and cultural environments, as well as changing design discourses. It traces the lineage of graphic design back to typography, tackles its problematic relation with advertising and addresses graphic designers’ efforts to negotiate their professional identity with industrial designers. By showing how macro historical narratives were experienced in everyday practice, it offers a partial history of Italy during a period of about thirty years. In particular, it approaches Italian graphic design during Fascism, addressing the grey area between alignment and resistance. A series of interrelated case studies brings to light lesser-known narratives and neglected actors of Italian design, while providing an original retelling of well-known stories and offering new perspectives on protagonists of the historiographical canon. Drawing on a wide range of primary sources and placing a great emphasis on visual analysis, this book provides a model for a contextualised, archive-based and outward-looking graphic design history as an integral part of the history of design, visual culture and cultural history.