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When I was a teenager I became fascinated by the art of Honoré Daumier (1808-1879).  Daumier is now famous for his sensitive pictures of day-to-day life for marginal people in French society, however, during his lifetime, he was known as a caustic social critic who created biting caricatures of the corrupt politicians who flourished during the chaotic yet reactionary period of French politics which followed Napoleon. During his life, Daumier witnessed the fall of Napoleon, the Bourbon restoration, the July monarchy, the Second Republic, the Second Empire, and the Third Republic.  For some reason he was cynical about the motives and abilities of the French political class.


The Legislative Belly (Honore Daumier, 1834) lithograph

Here is one of his satirical masterpieces, “The Legislative Belly” a lithograph from 1834, which depicts the members of the Chamber of Deputies. The Chamber of Deputies was an elected assembly, but only those who paid hefty taxes were eligible to vote, so exceedingly rich merchants and bankers chose the Deputies from among their own ranks. The title at the bottom reads “aspect of the ministerial benches of the improvised chamber of 1834.”

Looking up the individual deputies reveals that Daumier has pictured the deputies mostly as they actually looked.  These caricatures would have been easily recognizable to anyone following French politics in the year 1834:  Daumier did not melt or distort these features all that much…and yet the cumulative effect is horrifying.  The deputies look like monsters.  They have the appearance of doddering inbreds, vultures, cannibals, and fools.  The deputies drew Daumier’s wrath for their reactionary policies which enormously favored the wealthy and for their fractious and pettifogging habits when in session.

If Louis Philippe’s legislators were anything like they looked to be (and history sadly indicates that they were), it is astonishing that the July Monarchy lasted until 1848 when it was swept away by revolution.  Still there are many lessons about politics to be gleaned from this lithograph…and from reactionary French politics of the 19th century! One of these lessons is that even extremely non-representational legislative bodies are subject to popular opinion…eventually.

Ant (M.C. Escher, 1943, Lithograph)

Ant (M.C. Escher, 1943, Lithograph)

Here are two beautiful prints of ants by the great Dutch artist M.C. Escher. In art, ants are frequently metaphors for over ripeness, rottenness or ruin (think of Dali’s ants). Yet in Escher’s works they are something else entirely. The first print, a lithograph from the grim year 1943, shows a single ant. An ant alone hardly seems to exit—they are pieces of a larger superorganism. Yet here we have one of the creatures all by herself. How lovely and delicate she is: look at her crimped antennae and graceful segmented legs. Yet the ant’s head is down, and she has a slightly forlorn cast—as though she is about to be crushed. The print was made at a time when the nations of the world organized themselves into vast battling hives and individual humans hardly seemed to exist any more than individual ants. Working in the occupied Netherlands, the comparison could hardly have escaped the artist.

Möbius Strip II (M.C. Escher, 1963, Woodcut)

Möbius Strip II (M.C. Escher, 1963, Woodcut)


The second print is a woodcut from 1963. A line of red ants march stolidly along a Möbius strip. Because the strip they are on is non-orientable, their little universe has only one endless side. The insects are literally traveling forever. Is this print a tableau of futility or a metaphor for the infinite? The question is about more than just the microcosm the ants are trapped within.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

August 2020