Not very French

Philippe Halsman’s introduction to The Best Cartoons from France (1955) collected by Edna Bennett:

The French are a people full of contradiction.

France is famous for its cathedrals but half of its population are free-thinkers. French politeness has no rival but, as a Faizant cartoon in this book illustrates, the right to pinch or slap a beautiful derriere is one of the many freedoms of the French male. The reputation of French womanhood is—shall we say—gay. But the average French woman is of such old-fashioned morality that she would not only blight a Kinsey researcher but probably hit him over the head with her bidet. Since Descartes, Frenchmen have been known for their logical and precise thinking—but what other nation could produce a collection of cartoons bursting with more abstruse and lunatic imagination?

Of course, the cartoon has had a particularly glorious history in France. The biting drawings of Daumier, Gavarni, and others not only illustrated but perhaps even helped foment the revolution of 1848, which overthrew the regime of Louis Philippe.

French cartoonists of today use little of the social satire and the Gallic gall of their predecessors. The umbilical cord seems to have completely severed, and surprisingly—if I may stretch the metaphor—the severed end is pointing toward us.

A number of the young artists show American influence. We recognize as Steinberg nose here, a Virgil Partch profile there. Ami has a couple of cartoons which frankly imitate Charles Addams, the most popular American cartoonist in France. The majority, however, have a style of their own.

There is a veteran, Jean Effel, a child-like, poetic soul who plants a few naïve flowers in every one of his cartoons. There is another veteran, Dubout, who, being a bachelor, has so much free time on his hand he rarely draws a cartoon with less than a few dozen people in it. His charming drawing of a stalled train shows forty-nine people and four animals—a good Dubout average. I have at home a gigantic cartoon called the “Liberation of Paris” in which, inspired by the joy of being liberated, Dubout drew oodles of victory-drunk Americans and gratitude-crazy Parisians—two thousand of them—thereby probably establishing a new world record for populated cartoons.

Among the young ones André François and Chaval belong unquestionably to the great cartoonists of our time. Their humor is visual. It rarely needs a caption and it shows flashes of a delightfully lunatic genius.

As a matter of fact, most of the cartoons are permeated with a peculiar spirit which the French call “loufoque,” a new word stemming from argot, the slang of the Parisian underworld. Like most good foreign words it is untranslatable. Its meaning lies somewhere between “whimsical” and “plain crazy.” “L’esprit loufoque” is, of course, a definite symptom of something, but of what, I don’t know. In France it has invaded not only the cartoons but also the stage, screen and, as some seem to think, even politics.

But whether the cartoons are loufoque or not, the thinking behind them is charmingly French.

Are you an admirer of French logic? Maurice Henry, a former modern painter, gives you a splendid example in the first page of the collection. Picasso’s paintings prove, he reasons, that when looking at a beautiful girl Picasso sees a monster. Consequently, by having a monster as a model, Picasso will be able to produce a painting of a beautiful girl. (By the way, Picasso’s longing to see himself surrounded by monsters is so genuine that all his loves, including the present one, have been most attractive young women.)

Do you want another example of typically French delicacy? In the other cartoon on the front page, by Bellus, we see a painter painting a nude of a young girl who is too bashful to take off her clothes. The painter respects her feelings by tactfully peeking into her dress.

Are you interested in French inventiveness? See Perodin’s cartoon of the girl wearing a mask on her back. Every dress designer, looking at it, will blush—with envy, I hope.

The spiritual climate is French, but how about the scene? When we look at The Best Cartoons from Punch we actually see England. We watch its strange inhabitants at breakfast table or at a cocktail party We laugh at the austerity or at life in decrepit castles. The New Yorker’s 25 Anniversary Album reflects the change in American life from the flapper era to the era of the society hostess.

But this collection of the French cartoons reflects little of the French scene, of its typical characters and situations. It is as if the artists closed their eyes on the surrounding reality, with its crises and privations. Unlike their predecessors they don’t comment—they are too fed up. From this impossible world they escape into a world where everything is possible, a world they create on a small piece of paper. Strangely enough, it is a place which we are immediately at home—Maybe because the concierges, bicycle riders, and other classical ingredients of the French cartoon lore are absent.

It is very French today not to be very French. As I said before—France is full of contradiction.