Beyond the Louvre: the French art of the political cartoon

Marianna Hunt

Home to world-famous art galleries such as the Louvre and the Musée d'Orsay, the real place to discover the art on everyone's lips in France is in the pages of its political cartoons and satirical magazines.

French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, takes a "no holds barred" approach to its attacks on politics and society. From right-wing extremists, to the radical left, even entire religions - no sphere is sacred for this anti-institutional, anti-authoritarian magazine. Mocking caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad have appeared regularly in editions and are widely considered the catalyst of an attack on the magazine by Islamist gunmen in which four cartoonists were killed. Nevertheless, the attacks did not dampen the magazine's provocative tilt and recent editions have depicted Muhammad being beheaded by a member of the Islamic State.

Though cartoons enjoy similar influence and popularity in many other countries (the manga craze in Japan for instance), French cartoons are differentiated by their overtly political nature. Moreover, Charlie Hebdo is not a lone exception in this field. After the Charlie Hebdo attacks, professor at the University of Glasgow and expert on French cartooning, Laurence Grove declared: “The attack today was really on a national institution”.

Among  the magazine's many, similar rivals, the most well-known is Le Canard Enchaîné, another example of this quintessentially French blend of art, politics, and satire. The provocative nature of these publications have earned them the nickname journaux irresponsables (the irresponsible newspapers).

The phenomenon of using cartoon as a means of political commentary and protest is by no means a new one in French society. In the build-up to the French Revolution of 1789, political cartoons regularly mocked the monarchy. After the revolution, artists even turned against their former idols. This image shows a two-faced monument to Napoleon built upon a pile of skulls and inert bodies. The statue resembles that of the doubled headed Roman god who presided over the beginning and end of wars. This reference to Napoleon's persistent waging of war throughout Europe and the skulls which uphold the memorial suggests that this political leader's legacy was built upon the death and suffering of others - debasing the traditional Napoleonic legend. 

The tradition of this art form as an ideological weapon continued in the 20th century when, in the post-war period, both radically conservative Catholic groups and left-wing Communists attempted to use cartoons as a propaganda means to win over the young people of France.

It seems fitting then that, in the aftermath of the November shootings in Paris, the reaction, both in France and world-wide, was to take up pen and ink and turn the internet into a gallery of cartoons and sketches showing support for the victims.  The Islamic State of Iraq claimed the attacks were a retaliation against the French government's foreign policy and decision to launch air-strikes in Syria - making the political aspect of the attacks unmistakeable. Eiffel Towers made of tears, tricolour flags draped over corpses, and the Statue of Liberty rushing to the rescue of France, were just a number of the artistic commemorations to the deadliest attack on France since World War II. French graphic designer, Jean Jullien's 'Peace for Paris' illustration became a world-wide symbol of unity in the wake of the event. Jullien's rough and simple brushstrokes, illustrating the Eiffel Tower inside a peace sign, were printed on t-shirts and flags, splattered across the press front pages, and shared across the internet by everyday social media and the world's celebrities alike. In total the image was retweeted more than 42,000 times.

The case of French political cartoons illustrates, quite literally, the thorny aspects of freedom of expression and its capacity to be both the fuel of hatred and the instrument of peace. Clearly this "children's" medium, is not one to be treated lightly after all.