"L'Impudique Albion," caricature d'Edouard VII by Jean Veber, L'Assiette au Beurre, Septembre 1901
At the turn of the century the French Republic was threatened by a military-church-aristocracy coalition and a huge bureaucratic machine dominated by L’assiette au Beurre or the Butter Dish — the entrenched job-holders who dispensed favors for a price. They were despised but curiously tolerated.
During this period Paris was emerging as the art capital of the world. The Belle Epoch was in full swing. Artists were streaming in from Europe, joining ad hoc Salons des Independent. Many socially conscious artists turned to anarchism as a way to transcend the insularity of bohemianism and openly vent their political frustrations. They often created cartoons as a weapon of their struggle and, therefore, required outlets that projected their images beyond the hermetic salons and ateliers. It was propitious that in 1901 Samuel Schwarz founded a satiric visual weekly, aptly titled L’Assiette au Beurre, expressly poised to attack the functionaries who made their fortunes off the sweat of the citizenry. One of many graphic periodicals at the time, it not only critiqued the ruling classes but altered social mores in the process. Would that could be done today.
“Le Vatican” by Galantara, from L’Assiette au Beurre, November 1905
The acerbic art of L’Assiette au Beurre was produced by an assortment of international artists who contributed radical points-of-view. The journal provided a matchless opportunity to exhibit biting satires within a virulent, highly innovative artistic environment whose professed mission as the overseer of social foible and immoral excess was successfully carried out for the next twelve years.
L’Assiette au Beurre was loosely patterned on the German satiric magazine, Simplicissimus, with full-page drawings as the main content. The text was minimal if used at all. Art Nouveau was the predominant graphic style although the more decorative aspects were subservient to the caustic polemical ideas. The mastery of line — expert use of lights and darks — and subtle composition were all components of the socio-political message. Since virtually all L’Assiette’s content was visual, it offered artists the room to breathe while experimenting with various rendering media, including woodcut, pen-and-ink, and lithographic crayon. Art Nouveau was dominant but not the sole style. The representational approach, void of stylistic flourish, was also effectively employed as polemical method. Toulouse Lautrec, whose poster style inspired considerable mimicry among many of the artists, was refused admittance into L’Assiette’s ranks because his art was deemed too superficial.
L’Assiette published weekly; its issues were based on single themes that scrutinized specific events or international personalities, such as Franz Kupka’s satiric trilogy devoted to “Money,” “Peace,” and “Religion.” Usually a single artist was responsible for all the artwork in an entire issue — approximately sixteen large-scale drawings (some reproduced in two or three colors). At various times groups of contributors were invited to tackle a particular bête noire, including the faulty judicial system, the hypocritical Catholic Church hierarchy, or the inept medical profession. The most memorable single issues of L’Assiette are those executed by artists with fervent biases, such as Vadasz on homosexuality, Veber on Reconcentration Camps in the Transvaal, Gris on Suicide, and Hermann-Paul on Lourdes, the religious retreat that he believed exploited atavistic superstitions.
"L'Argent," by François Kupka, from L’Assiette au Beurre, January 1902
Some graphic commentaries nibbled rather than took deep bites, such as those aimed at snobs, cafes, sports, high fashion, automobiles, and technology. A curiously provocative issue entitled Le Lit (the bed) was devoted to the sleeping habits of various social groups — from rich to poor, as well as married couples, prostitutes, and prisoners. Predications was a futuristic view of the human condition by Roubille. Another special issue was devoted to the second coming of Jesus Christ, this time resurrected into the “modern” fin de siècle world: It speculates on how the Son of God was repulsed by many deeds (i.e. those of organized religion) done in his name. Juan Gris’ pre-Cubist contributions revealed his fascination with geometric formulations predating his later experimental canvases. And Nabis artist, Felix Vallotton’s special issue of original lithographs, titled Crime and Punishments, exquisitely printed on heavy paper stock, wherein each, original stone lithograph is given an unprecedented single side of the page, are a masterpiece of brutish expressionism aptly representing the cruelty of France’s criminal system as well as punishments meted out by clergy and parents on children and adults alike.
All officials could be pilloried. Leal Da Camara’s issue titled Les Souvrain’s was complete with caricatures of the world’s leading monarchs. And no friendly or belligerent nation was beyond range of satiric ordinance: England, France’s historic enemy, was periodically attacked through caricatures of its leaders and farcical tableau for what L’Assiette’s editors described as heinous foreign polices, notably the establishment of the first 20th Century “concentration camps” for use during the Boer War to imprison Dutch South African civilians and combatants. L’Assiette’s few central European artists kept a watchful eye on the machinations of the Austro-Hungarian emperor and condemned his thirst for European dominance. But closer to home, the abusive treatment of black Africans in French colonies was also abhorred.
"La paix!...La paix!...Et notre carrière?...," by Gustave Henri Jossot, from L’Assiette au Beurre, February 1902
Particular rancor was reserved for la Belle France herself: For one special issue a group of L’Assiette’s contributors marshaled their journalistic fervor and critical zeal to reflect on a tragic ”accidental” gun powder factory explosion at Issy-les Moulineaux where hundreds of workers were killed owing to inadequate safety measures. Another exposé targeted a scandal involving a dairy company that knowingly distributed spoiled milk throughout Paris, resulting in fatalities among young children. In addition L’Assiette’s sharpest barbs and venomous graphic commentaries were reserved for French Papists.
L’Assiette was often banned by French authorities. On one occasion, one issue titled Les Cafes Concerts was coerced into being previewed by an ethics committee that stamped each acceptable drawing with Vise par Le Censor (passed by the censor). A frequent L’Assiette contributor, Aristide Delannoy, was arrested, sentenced to one year in jail, and fined 3000 francs for depicting General d’Amade, the military occupier of Morocco, as a butcher with blood-stained apron; later the same artist was threatened with imprisonment when he visually attacked the French leaders Briande and Clemenceau. Minor witch-hunts were practiced with L’Assiette as target and yet the efforts at prior restraint often backfired resulting in greater publicity and sales.
L’Assiette au Beurre made an impact on a generation and this continued after it ceased publication in 1911. Its spirit continued in satiric journals such as Le Mot, edited by Jean Cocteau and Le Temoin edited by Paul Iribe. But L’Assiette was the wellspring of critical and oppositional graphic journalism in France and the model for many satiric journals to follow. Today this kind of print media has been replaced by film, video, and TV, which in blander ways carry out the stinging comedies and stark satires of the past.