These days satirical jabs at politicians are to be taken for granted and most newspapers are free to create cartoons mocking them. Censors in France in the early 19th century were much less accepting and any cartoons that made fun of the ruling elite were not looked kindly upon.
Despite this hostile atmosphere, Honore Daumier continued to side with the poor and the working class through his paintings and caricatured drawings. One features the money of the poor being fed to an obese King who defecates decorations and bills that favour the ministers and wealthy elite. It was deemed so offensive that Daumier was imprisoned for six months for publishing it.
He also ridiculed ministers for their vanity and questioned whether the French revolution had actually benefited the working class in any way – a controversial view to have held at that time. By placing a skeleton atop a steam engine in one work, he presciently suggested that the advancement of technology would only result in greater numbers of deaths in war.
It wasn’t just politics he targeted; the art world was also subject to attack – in one cartoon a sculpture comes to life but the gallery goers are much more interested in paintings, as was the case at the time. By showing one landscape painter copying another he implies that all landscape paintings are the same, thus reflecting his preference and loyalty to portraiture.
Daumier also painted serious works and this is where he gets a little patchy. His excellent Don Quixote, an expressionist writhing mass of bodies in a riot and glum passengers travelling on third class rail are all excellent. However, most of the others are merely average and don’t differentiate themselves from other artists of the time.
The satire in this show is the strongest part with the serious works only containing a few highlights. With 130 items on display, the exhibition does seem like it contains many preparatory works to fill the void, and a more tightly curated and shorter exhibition would have come across more effectively.
Daumier: Visions of Paris is at Royal Academy of Arts until 26 January 2014. Tickets are £11 for adults, concessions available.