Almost a year ago, when I began this Blog, I briefly mentioned French artist J.J. Grandville in my premier post.
I confess that I had a slight case of cold feet when I first began blogging, and didn’t really give him his due applause in my brief mention of him. I most definitely feel that J.J. deserves his own devoted segment of Otha People’s Art (that I LOVE). In fact, Grandville is probably worthy of my most epic Post yet….
While his work is becoming more familiar to a newer and broader audience, the whimsical, unique, highly detailed and humorous work of J.J. Grandville remains relatively unknown to the general population, although many of the artists whose work was directly influenced by his are household names.
Born in post revolutionary France in 1803, J.J. Grandville was born Jean Ignace Isidore Gérard to a family of artists and actors. The name “Grandville” was the family’s stage name. Grandville must have shown a strong natural aptitude for drawing as his father is credited for developing young Jean’s talent and no formal education in drawing or painting is formally cited, although some sources do say that he he was able to formally hone his artistic skill. Whatever the case, it’s evident that Grandville held not only great technical prowess, but also keen observation skills, a healthy sense of humour, and enormous creativity and insight.
As a young man of 21, Grandville relocated to Paris and began working as a Caricaturist, quickly gaining a name for himself with his poignant depictions of city politics, most notably via anthropomorphic pen and ink drawings of prolific Parisians. Many of his “portraits” are single frame “cartoons” with a single line of caption underneath, a convention that appears to have been the norm for newspapers at the time. It seems that Grandville used these restrictions to his advantage by likening both the appearance and personality traits of his subjects to those of well-known animals with archetypal traits. In doing so, he was able to say so much more about his targets than words or caricature alone, especially as these jokes were appealing to a broader range of society. For example, Grandville might compose an image of a portly uniformed police officer and add the jowly head of a collared bulldog sneering at a petty criminal, a thin ragged man with the head of a nervous, yet crafty fox. It’s not exactly cutting edge by today’s standard, but was for it’s time. Grandville pioneered this style and it continues to be massively appealing and highly effective today.
In 1835, when Louis-Phillipe, ironically dubbed “the citizen king” ascended the French throne, he quickly reinstated the censoring of caricature. It is highly likely that Grandville’s work contributed to this as some of his work does depict Louis-Phillipe in numerous, rather compromising positions. It is at this time that Grandville turned primarily to the illustration of books, and the resulting images are some of his best loved work.
In my collection, I have a few hand-tinted prints taken from Les Fleurs Animees, which was first published in 1847. Unfortunately, it was the last major project Grandville was able to complete. He died at the age of 43, presumably from complications due to a throat infection.
Les Fleurs Animees (The Flowers Personified) written by Alphonse Karr et el is a compilation of short stories featuring one or two “personified flowers”–that is, flowers that have been magically transformed into human ladies based on the Victorian Language of Flowers, a popular and artistic form of communication based on folklore and/or specific attributes of certain botanicals. This rather sweet and poetic method of communication, also called Floriography (which has a pseudo scientific ring to it and likely had ambitions of such) was viewed as a way to almost transcend the spoken word, especially at a time where words were carefully chosen and emotions were often restrained. It’s a bit of a mystery as to why some of the flowers were chosen to represent certain aspects or traits, but The Language of Flowers was hugely popular for a time. There are purportedly over 600 meanings for a variety of common and exotic plants–it’s pretty well-known that a red rose says “I Love You”, but the Language of Flowers could be much more complicated, and also have it’s obvious fallibilities as I’m sure you can imagine.
Victorians had an interest in both the Scientific and the Sentimental, and much of this interest culminated in the work of Sigmund Freud, who was amongst the first to attempt to give rationale for the range of Human Emotion–the emotion that early Victorians were trying to understand, control and categorize.
Les Fleurs Animees can be seen as an early light-hearted attempt to rationalize human emotion in a removed, morale and entertaining way. Written especially for women, something that was quite ground-breaking at the time, Les Fleurs Animees offered ladies a chance to examine themselves in a removed way. Many of the stories have a “moral tone” so proper young ladies could find comfort in accepting their short-comings and their positions in life by the end of each story–much of the book favours Fate over Free-will. Although some of the stories are whimsical, and Grandville’s illustrations are playfully satirical, the book also attempts to “educate” and interest women in The Natural World, Horticulture and Botany. It’s an interesting combination when viewed by today’s eyes, especially given that at this point in European history, women were not considered Legal Persons and there was still great debate regarding how much a woman should be allowed to know and whether she should be granted (or could even benefit from) formal education.
The heart of these stories are Absurdist–they speak about the Human Condition. About Reality vs Perception. Conformity vs Ipseity. Convention vs Ingenuity. Nature vs Nurture. At the roots of this book are the seeds of what would later blossom into many branches of Isms: concepts such as Surrealism, Existentialism, Feminism and Modernism. This book (and much of Grandville’s style and sensibilities) paves the way for so much of contemporary thought. It would still be decades before Franz Kafka penned his celebrated story “The Metamorphosis”, where a salesman awakes one day o find himself transformed, without explanation, into a giant insect….
I personally find the language used in Les Fleurs to be a little tedious, especially as I must read the English Translation–I’m sure many of the subtleties are lost in translation, as many of the characteristics associated with the flowers are taken from the French plant names. But, as I said, the stories are an interesting snapshot of history.
However, it is Grandville’s illustrations that truly make the book interesting. They can be funny, a little naive, elegant and very telling of the time as well as Grandville’s personal sensibilities.
Grandville can be considered the True Father of Surrealism and his influence is vast. His work greatly shaped the work of British illustrator Sir John Tenniel, well known for his contributions to the “Punch” publication and what many of us envision when we think of Alice in Wonderland as he composed the first and probably most successful depictions of Alice and her Adventures. Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice was also undoubtedly influenced by Grandville’s work. Carroll even has Alice encountering a garden full of rather nasty anthropomorphic flowers on her journey….
Written at the pinnacle of the Surrealist movement, Walt Disney’s “Fantasia” is still considered to be a animation and artistic masterpiece. The full length feature film contains snippets of nature, fantasy and abstract art set to classical music. The film was considered groundbreaking at the time and was dubbed “a new form of entertainment”. Fantasia enjoyed a popular renaissance with the Hippie movement of the late 1960’s and 70’s and still remains popular today.
Many artists worked on the film and Disney gave a lot of creative licence to the animators working on the film, something both unusual and generous for Walt Disney and his studio at the time.
The Surrealist movement, which came out of Dadaism “aimed to revolutionize human experience, in its personal, cultural, social, and political aspects. They wanted to free
people from false rationality, and restrictive customs and structures”. The movement sprang from the early 1920’s and continued into the late 1950’s and 60’s. The most celebrated f the Surrealists, Salvador Dali, was a late comer on the scene. He became one of the first artists to become a household name.
The development of concept and style is hugely interesting, and it’s not something which evolves in a straight line, or something that is easily categorized. Of course it’s always easier to note and theorize on retrospectively. So much of Grandville’s work was created for and enjoyed by a diverse class and it reached a much wider audience than traditional forms of artistic expression at the time. I am truly in love and so inspired by it, as well as so much of the work that came about because of Grandville’s insight. It is so incredible that one man’s short life could have so much impact on a world that seems so removed from Post Revolutionary France. It goes to show that we’re far more alike than different.
As we embark on the Summer and all that she holds in store, it’s a wonderful time to contemplate growth, tenacity and beauty both in ourselves and in the world. Like plants, the fertile seeds of one person’s imagination can yield such enormous bounty….