Political Satire, French-Style

A French revolutionary wields a sword over the bloody Hydra of despotism, about to sever her only remaining head.

Another rebel, well armed to enforce the new order of freedom and liberty, rides a king as if the conquered monarch were a donkey. Nearby, his cohorts storm the Bastille.

Another king, depicted as a grotesque fang-tooth devil, spews the stench of higher taxes from his skinny derriere.

Welcome to the world of political satire and social commentary a la the French Revolution, brought to you by UCLA’s Wight Art Gallery.


Opening there on Tuesday is “Politics and Polemics: French Caricature and the French Revolution, 1789-1799,” a print exhibition about the famous revolution’s heroes, villains and bloody battles, as well as its philosophical ideals and propaganda of the day.

Most of the show’s 180 prints--many of them humorous, satiric, sometimes grotesque caricatures--were done anonymously. Among the identified artists represented are Jacques Louis David, Jean-Francois Janinet and Alexandre Fragonard.

“The French Revolution was the first modern reorganization of a political order,” said James Cuno, exhibit co-curator and Wight Art Gallery director. “That makes it a terribly exciting, dramatic event that comes alive in these images. One sees groups struggling for a world based on individuals’ wills rather than the chance of birthright or inherited privilege.”

While specific battles and religious and political conflicts are depicted in the exhibit, an expert knowledge of the revolution isn’t necessary to enjoy the show, Cuno said.


“You don’t have to know about all the history because of the sheer beauty and some extraordinary composition of the images, for one thing,” he said. “Printmaking became its most sophisticated in 18th-Century France. Mezzotint, stipple engraving, aquatint--all these methods were refined during that time.”

There’s the humor of the caricatures as well. The print “Explication,” for instance, shows English citizens scrambling away from their King George III, depicted as a devil “spewing tax demands” in the form of lightning bolt-like images shooting out from his behind.

“What he’s really doing is defecating on the citizens,” Cuno said. “The print assaults the stature of the king with humor of the most grotesque, most humiliating kind and reduces him not merely by argument, but by a kind of impulsive humor that we can all relate to.”

“Politics and Polemics,” through Dec. 18, is accompanied by the first English-language catalogue to reproduce a comprehensive collection of French Revolutionary caricatures, Cuno said.

New from Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions is “LACE: 10 Yrs Documented” (112 pages). The book outlines the arts organization’s first decade and examines art forms that have emerged locally and nationally in the 1980s. More than 100 color plates and a chronology of LACE’s programming are included. The book is available at the LACE bookstore and at selected museums and book stores in Southern California.

California-based artists made up one-third of the 15 artists selected for a prestigious new grant given by the Western States Arts Federation, or WESTAF.

The first WESTAF/NEA Regional Fellowships for Visual Artists were awarded for printmaking and drawing to: Chad Buck of San Francisco, Stuart Caswell of Rosemead, Glen Walter Rubsamen of Venice, Paul Singdahlsen of Los Angeles and David Hollowell of Woodland.

These artists will receive a $3,500 unrestricted cash award plus travel stipends and promotion. They were chosen from among 629 competitors from 13 Western states, all members of WESTAF, the largest of the country’s seven regional arts organizations, which is funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and major corporations.