“If you shut up truth and bury it under ground, it will but grow, and gather to itself such explosive power that the day it bursts through it will blow up everything in its way.”- Émile Zola
Exited Honoré Victorin Daumier, 10 February 1879, in an impoverishment that many of his contemporaries, especially his foes, would have thought was his long overdue retribution- the painter was blind, heavily in debt, and later relegated to a pauper’s grave. His friends, upon visiting his resting place, would, I imagine, see it a chance to admonish their children: “Now that’s a lesson for you cheeky devils whose tongues rattle off things that should better stay unspoken.” But Daumier devoted his life in revealing those “unspoken things.” His lithography ink proved sharper than most writers’ pens. He vented his rage and stigmatised others’ infamy in his satirical and, oftentimes, side-splitting cartoons. The tone was relentlessly acerbic but only because Daumier was exposing truths that, in the time of social upheaval, were invariably misconstrued as provocation against the authority. Truths are perennially unwelcoming. People wince at truths as if they were the iguanas that, all of a sudden appearing from nowhere, destroyed the beautiful scenery they were enjoying, with glasses of wine in hands.
But once we put aside those caricatures, we see truths in a different light. That truths can convey compassion, consolation, and even some rare moments of tenderness. The paintbrush of Daumier’s is of a gentler breed, always hesitant to criticise. In his paintings of the Parisians in their ordinary lives, I see the epitome of fortitude. The people, though mostly living down-and-out, bear up the difficulty with fierce dignity. They are never languid, they rarely slouch, their eyes exude no weariness after their daily drudgery, and their physicality is often strong- one deduction is that Daumier was never fond of including in his paintings bodies that were savaged by malnutrition.
One famous painting depicts a rather stout laundress. Her face is a cloud of blurriness, so we cannot tell if she is beginning to lose patience with the child she is leading in her hand, who is evidently absorbing in her play thing, or gazing lovingly at her adorable antics. If there is any feeling of weariness, it is however not palpably shown, perhaps, on the laundress’s heavy gait? Because she has to tend to a bundle of washing and a child whilst toiling up stairs?
Daumier’s penchant for loose, summary brushstrokes gave him a privilege, which was also a natural bent the wittiest raconteur would possess, to suggest only an outline of a story, and leave everything else to the viewers’ imagination. In The Chess Player (1863), the two players are in the stalemate of a game. Neither of them are certain how to place their checkpieces to claim the victory. Again, the nebulousness of their facial expressions inhibits us to make out accurately their state of mind. Only seemingly so. When you squint your eyes a little and try to scrutinise the painting more closely, you will discern, amidst blotches of dark colours, the left eye of the player, who sits facing the viewers, suggesting a hint of frostiness as he glares at his opponent.
There are still some poignant moments. In The Uprising (1860), a group of sallow-cheeked protestors are shouting out their resentments. The most zealous one has his arm up in air. But no one seems stimulated to follow suit. Some stare at him aghast. Others look like they want to retreat from the scene as if they are suddenly checked by the senselessness of their actions. The painting illustrates quite vividly the collective anxiety of late nineteenth century France. People were extremely angry. But they knew very well their rage could never elicit any response. Their children would remain unfed. Any sickness still unattended. The family still bogged down in a desperate state they were hopeless to alter.
It was never Daumier’s intention of making the peasants pitiable. Their faces, sometimes deliberately made obscure by the painter, denote their propensity for dissimulating. Even when they are the lone fighters- who are on a quixotic quest of something that seems so far-fetched, so incongruous with their destiny that before setting out, a doomed consequence is already presaged- their backs remain obstinately straight; never once do they cower when they hear the booming voice of Fate. Interestingly, it is the Gods who betray the most telling signs of anxiety, as seen in St. Magdalene in the Desert (1848-52), the saint is rendered crazed and ecstatic, praying in the manner that seems more befit a beggar, who is suddenly robbed of all he’s earned.
Daumier’s empathy lied with civilians, who maintain stoical demeanors even in face of extreme predicaments. In his later years, he became fascinated with Cervantes’s Don Quixote, insofar as he painted an entire series, expressing his personal views on the story. The sombre tonality in his earlier paintings is no longer dominant in the series. Some brighter palette begins to appear. The rotundity that characterises Daumier’s people is now, however, superseded by an odd sense of angularity and leanness. In a memorable one shows a blank-faced Quixote sitting astride his stalwart donkey. Both are noted for their spindly legs, which quite comically parallel with the lance the hero is holding in his hand. The sparseness of the composition aptly reflects the loneliness of an imaginative idealist, awkwardly anachronistic in his age, whose goal is the noble undertaking of preserving the dying tradition of chivalry.
Daumier was no Don Quixote. Rarely would any of his contemporaries regard his slanderous comics as a dignified one-man battle against a corrupted government. Only recently did people start to take notice of his paintings, and discern beneath the rugged façade a shimmering light of humanity. Little do most of us know, though, that a real humanist will always tell the truth.