Upon discovering a series of political cartoons mocking artists in 18th– and 19th-century France in 2010, UNC-Chapel Hill art historian Kathryn Desplanque couldn’t stop searching for them. Now, she has amassed more than 500 and is using them to redefine how we think about art and the artist in modern-day society.
A one-shoed man wearing a slouchy hat and oversized shirt holds a match toward the wicks of a large black cannon aimed at two buildings. One is the French Panthéon — a mausoleum in Paris that houses the remains of distinguished citizens, including the writer Voltaire, philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Louis Braille, inventor of the reading and writing system with his surname. The other is the Institut de France, where the country’s greatest living cultural, political, and artistic minds reside.
But these cannons are not filled with gun powder. They have been stuffed with art prints and demons, which spill forth from the barrels. In the background, middle-class Frenchmen cheer on the man behind the mortar, excited to see his artistic creations in action.
This is a 19th-century French political cartoon. One of exactly 530 collected by UNC-Chapel Hill art historian Kathryn Desplanque.
“It’s a kind of shooting-myself-in-the-foot image of the artist,” Desplanque says. “He acknowledges being the maker of these objects and trying to have a career, but also that in making these objects he’s probably destroying his career.”
Desplanque has spent nearly a decade traveling to Paris and other cities in France to collect these unique and often obscure prints, most of which were made in the 18th and 19th centuries, from the depths of libraries and archives. On the surface, such objects feel far removed from modern-day culture in the States. But after spending some time with Desplanque, she reveals that they are a commentary on the artist that prevails even here and now.
“This research topic has less to do with 18th– and 19th-century political cartoons and printed images and more with my interest in trying to understand what art-making and the art world looks like in a capitalist society,” she shares. “I think the best example in popular culture is how we’ve accepted that to be an artist is to starve and struggle — and that trope is alive and well in how we make decisions about what our careers are going to be and what we are going to get degrees in.”
Going off the rails
Desplanque began her academic career as a maker of art rather than a historian. She majored in studio art at Concordia University and practiced printmaking and painting. Some of the things she saw as a student in the art world made her uncomfortable, like the idea of producing art to achieve financial success rather than personal fulfillment.
“Art school was so much more strategic than I imagined it was going to be, and there are some weird, secret ways that one can become successful as a contemporary artist,” she shares.
Politics, nepotism, networking, popularity. She thought the art world would be exempt from these social constructs, but quickly discovered that wasn’t the case. She found that friendships with curators and attending the “right parties” trumped talent. And while these realizations disturbed her, they also enthralled her.
After picking up a minor in art history, she took a class that introduced her to Pierre Bourdieu, a sociologist of art who interviewed people about their experiences within French art museums. He discovered that many of them visited these spaces to accrue social capital. In response to this knowledge, Desplanque began pondering how these seemingly subconscious hierarchies within the art world affect the way people create and think about art.
Desplanque went on to pursue a master’s in art history at Carleton University, where she discovered an “exceptional, slanderous image” of French painter Jean-Baptiste Greuze. This etching is a multi-pronged attack, according to Desplanque, that targets his ethics, relationships, artistic performance, and even his wife.
In 2010, Greuze’s caricature took Desplanque on a wild goose chase throughout Paris as she attempted to find another edition of the image — which was anonymous, undated, and untitled. In other words, the worst possible case scenario for an art historian. But the hunt only escalated Desplanque’s drive to find the image.
Eventually, she found herself in the prints and drawings room at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, peeling through a falling-apart collection of folios.
“It was a weird little rag-tag scrapbook of images,” she describes. “A collection of scrappy, anonymous, cheaply printed images that related to the arts in some ways.”
And there it was: a second edition of the Greuze caricature. But alongside it was a slew of other political cartoons.
“I totally went off the rails,” Desplanque admits. “I basically just stopped doing my M.A. research for weeks and was like, What is this? What are these images? What is happening? I was so surprised and interested and confused and enamored with them — and realized I needed to stop. I needed to go back to my M.A. research.”
Little did she know at the time that this caricature would be the first of more than 500 images that would lead to her PhD thesis and current topic of study: political cartoons from 18th– and 19th-century Paris that examine the relationship between artists, consumers and critics of art, and the art world more broadly.
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