September 9, 2011
Has satire changed? The Parisian artist-satirist Jean-Louis Forain skewered the attitudes and manners of his social-climbing peers. He was not particularly liked for his efforts-but then, he did not care.
"When I begin to age," simpered a Belle Epoque Parisian to artist satirist Jean-Louis Forain, "I will shoot myself."
Antisocial, reactionary, and chauvinistic, Forain capitalized on his own foul character by inundating newspapers with caustic cartoons that royally roasted the French nouveau riche. His vitriolic pen ridiculed-and captured-the posturing Belle Epoque (1880-1914) and filled four albums: LA COMEDIE PARISIENNE; NOUS, VOUS, EUX; DOUX PAYS; and LES TEMPS DIFFICILES.
Himself an unimpeachable member of the new middle class, Forain, ironically, seared the manners and mores of the very worlds he inhabited. His cartoons hit home and drew blood from politics, business, religion, justice, the theater. Apparently, it takes one to know one.
Even when baited, Forain knew just how far he could go. Not without considerable charm, the cagey opportunist would smile innocently and win pardons for his poisoned arrows. His sallies were considered part of the game. Parisian hostesses were proud when the candid, sardonic Forain appeared at their dinner parties. Seen in all the right places, Forain had plenty of social engagements, ranging from opening nights to fashionable funerals. At such events, he met Toulouse-Lautrec (whom he later introduced to the pictorial possibilities of Montmartre's nightlife), Marcel Proust, and novelist-politician Maurice Barres.
Steeped in realism by his first teacher, Second Empire sculptor Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, Forain's first paintings were pleasant enough-anecdotal and very Parisian. For 3 decades, however, he neglected his paint pots for a savage cartoonist pen. When he again picked up a brush, Forain executed sinister-looking paintings from a palette loaded with black, sepia, and white. Many of these latter works are religious and crucifixion scenes, which totally confused his public.
"Don't give a damn" seemed to be Forain's motto. He left many canvases unfinished and allowed completed works to flake away in his studio. He refused to exhibit because he hated agents, and kicked art lovers out of his studio if he didn't like their looks. Such behavior took its toll: when Forain died, there was no one to defend his work-or promote it.
After half a century of obscurity, such a promoter surfaced: Yves Brayer, curator of the Marmottan Museum in Paris. Brayer dreamed and plotted for 2 decades to rescue Forain's body of work from oblivion. He achieved his goal by mounting a comprehensive Forain exhibition at the Marmottan.
A look at Forain's paintings, drawings, engravings, and lithographs firmly establishes him as an uncompromising observer of the Belle Epoque. Deftly caricaturing gestures, expressions, and actions, he communicates the spirit, protocol, and defects of that nouveau riche society.
Forain followed in the great tradition of Honore Daumier, famed for his own satirical lithographs on social issues: he adapted his caricatures to the modern newspaper medium. He aimed for an economical, just-dashed-off look-a "spontaneous" effect achieved only after a dozen or more successive drawings on tracing paper. Forain adopted this process from his friend and supporter, Edgar Degas; it was also useful to Henri Matisse and Edouard Vuillard. In the end, Forain executed a precise, powerful drawing rendered with crisp, sure strokes.
Which came first: Forain's drawings or their captions? Seemingly well-matched extensions of each other, the captions usually sprang from the drawings-with devastating effect on businessmen, politicians, performers and their audiences, snobs, and servants (Forain had four).
Forain was born in Reims in 1852 of a family of vineyard owners, but took off for Paris at an early age. On his own there, the feisty little Forain quickly learned the panhandling skills of street urchins. He whiled away some days sketching in the Louvre-and filching tubes of paint from other copyists.
A chance encounter in the Louvre with the sculptor Carpeaux determined Forain's legitimate vocation. Carpeaux offered to critique the 16-year-old's sketches and gave him an important piece of advice: "Go out into the street, look for a blind man standing in the shelter of an archway, make a sketch, and then come back and do your drawing."
Contact with other artists and writers helped launch Forain's career.
Briefly sheltered by Paul Verlaine and a roommate of Arthur Rimbaud, Forain painted a portrait of the novelist Joris Karl Huysmans. Huysmans adored the portrait: "Monsieur Forain is one of the most penetrating painters of modern life that I know," wrote the author of A REBOURS (AGAINST THE GRAIN). Those 15 words sufficed to make Forain-an outspoken, former street urchin-a star of Paris society.
Forain's satirical cartoons proved even more lucrative than his painting. A prolific artist, Forain sold his drawings to numerous French newspapers, including FIGARO, L'ECHO DE PARIS, and LA REVUE ILLUSTREE. Considered a master of the medium for 3 decades, Forain raked in 300 francs per cartoon-while manual laborers earned 120 francs per month.
When these essentially conservative newspapers failed to absorb his entire controversial output, Forain created his own short-lived publications: FIFRE (1889) and PSST (1898). In the weekly PSST, Forain promoted his rabid anti-Semitism by focusing on the Dreyfus Affair. Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the wealthy Alsatian Jew wrongly convicted of treason, became a national cause celebre. Forain was one of the most vocal opponents of Dreyfus, and his cartoon campaigns may have lengthened the years Dreyfus spent imprisoned on Devil's Island. Forain never acknowledged his error.
Though some graphic art lovers may know Forain's etchings and lithographs, few of us today are aware of his paintings. Sponsored by Degas, Forain exhibited with the impressionists from 1879 to 1886. At that time, his style resembled that of Degas. Forain even depicted similar subjects: backstage at the Opera, vaudeville, dances, and society events. Scenes such as LE BUFFET (1884), with its formally dressed guests partaking of a sumptuous spread, were visual anecdotes told by the ever-watchful Forain.
"He's still hanging on to my coattails," said Degas, excusing his continued championship of Forain, "but he'll go far if he lets go."
In the end, Forain wholeheartedly let go. When he returned to painting after the long intermission devoted to satirical sketches, he turned to a genre diametrically opposed to impressionism. Severing all links with his past, Forain singled out Auguste Renoir and the young Paul Cezanne for his harshest attacks.
Forain's late paintings lack the easygoing amiability of his earlier canvases. A reformed churchgoer after his World War I army experiences, the elderly artist gravitated toward religious subjects and adopted a succinct, somber technique that reflected his frame of mind. Today, the pallid lighting effects of these paintings strike some viewers as a source of the expressionism that was to come.
Not surprisingly, compliments made the lampooner uneasy. Forain frequently spoiled or destroyed paintings praised in his presence. Before dying, he burned 17 of the pictures produced in the final months of his life. Only Forain's etchings survive from this period.
When this crusty critic of bourgeois society died in 1931, he was buried with socially prestigious honors; Forain was an officer of the French Legion of Honor, president of the National Fine Arts Society, and a member of the French Institute. At the time of his death, he was admired by the greatest contemporary artists. Guillaume Apollinaire described Forain as "one of the most illustrious of [today's] artists," one who had had the most influence "on artistic youth and who retained the most authority with an elite public."
Vuillard praised Forain's drawing for its happy wedding of style and content. Cezanne-whom Foram called "a peasant with stinking feet"-hung Forain drawings on his own studio walls. Looking back, critics and artists could see that Forain had simplified painting and partially opened the door to 20th-century art.