The Maison de Balzac, where the writer lived for seven years and where he wrote his caffeine-fueled La Comédie humaine, has operated as a museum for many years. Closing last year for renovations, it reopened in September with an exhibition dedicated to J. J. Grandville, one of the great political cartoonists and caricaturists of 1830s France along with Honoré Daumier and Charles Philipon. Subtitled “A Caustic Fantasy,” the exhibition certainly lives up to its description. Though nominally organized around Balzac’s writings on Grandville and the latter’s illustrations for La Comédie humaine, it covers a wide range of Grandville’s work and includes some of his ferocious political cartoons.
After going bankrupt as a publisher, Honoré Balzac turned to journalism. In 1829 he met Grandville in the offices of the illustrated weekly La Silhouette. Younger than Balzac, Grandville by then had achieved a small reputation as the creator of two amusing collections, Difficulties of the Middle Class (1826) and Each Age Has Its Pleasures (1827), and a larger one as illustrator of Everyday Metamorphoses (1829), a collection shaped around the animalization of humans and the humanization of animals. A comedy of manners, it depicts courtesans as reptiles, prostitutes as owls (night birds) or sows, and doctors in the bleeding trade as . . . leeches.
The exhibition shows representative works from the collections that caught Balzac’s attention. The blackly amusing Voyage to the Hereafter (ca. 1830, “An Express Service Open to All, at Any Time, and from Anywhere on the Globe”) shows Death, in the manner of Holbein, offering a hand to his prosperous and fashionable would-be clientele. Aquatic Morals (1830) shows a rat kidnapping a frog by the side of a lake. Balzac’s review quoting a variety of acquaintances nicely captures the engraving’s ambiguity—nobody likes it, but nobody can agree why. Themes represented in the cartoons are press freedom and taxation, and the artistic, literary, and press personalities of the day. Overall, royalty, politicians, peers of the realm, landlords and their smug wives, and fat clergymen get a rough ride, very much in line with Grandville’s républicain leanings—which eventually distanced him from the pro-monarchy Balzac.
The catalogue (€29.90) is in French and excellent.