The Father of Caricature: Works by Honoré Daumier from R. Paul Firnhaber’s Collection
Honoré Daumier (1808–1879) was a remarkable 19th-century French artist who created innovative paintings and sculptures, but made his living mainly as a caricaturist. With his impressive oeuvre of cartoons and caricatures, he can be regarded as the father of caricature, a title also justified by the example he set in developing humorous pictures into socially and politically influential works of art.
As a supporter of democratic and republican views, Daumier sided with the underdog, i.e. vulnerable social groups, and was not afraid to attack unfair politicians or their support structures: the wealthy bourgeoisie, the Church, the schools and the judiciary. While scathingly critical and forceful on these issues, he approached common human weaknesses more mildly, with empathy and a sympathetic smile.
Daumier’s caricatures, which appeared mainly in satirical publications, such as La Caricature and Le Charivari, are good reflections of both the artist’s views and his era. Although the struggle for the republican cause and democratic rights and freedoms were subjects close to Daumier’s heart, his artistic freedom and the choice of subjects for his cartoons were limited by strict censorship. Thus, most of his works are “harmless” cartoons that poke fun at human shortcomings, the local cultural life and overpopulation of Paris, and family relations. In this exhibition, these are grouped under the general title City Lights. The section Summer Pleasures depicts Parisians’ pastimes in the countryside and the city.
The works displayed in the section Political Grimaces appeared in the press during the more liberal periods. Here, we see bold caricatures of French politicians and attacks on the rulers of countries hostile to France. These are complemented by pictorial commentaries on current political events from News of the Day, a giant series of 1,102 cartoons, and the visual satire of the series Stories from Antiquity, mocking the mainstream conservative views glorifying ancient history.
While Daumier’s cartoons are featured in several museum collections in Estonia, including the Johannes Mikkel Collection, now owned by the Art Museum of Estonia, this exhibition is the first opportunity in Estonia to study the work of this great artist in more detail.
The works on display at the Mikkel Museum come from the most extensive private collection of Daumier prints in Estonia, owned by Rolan Paul Firnhaber (b. 1936 in Indianapolis), an American cultural historian, anthropologist and scholar of prehistoric art. He holds a PhD in comparative religion and mythology from the University of Chicago and has studied indigenous religions, shamanism, death culture and rock art. In 2010, he moved to Viljandi, Estonia. He says he is “honoured to live among a people who still cherish their heritage and their stories”.
Curator: Anu Allikvee
Exhibition designer: Liina Siib
Graphic designer: Külli Kaats