Hermann-Paul: Elegant Racism

René Georges HERMANN-PAUL (1864-1940)
Nationalisme

China ink, watercolor and colored pencil on thin wove paper, 1899.
Preparatory drawing published in Le Figaro, November 30, 1899, number 334, page 3.
Annotated “Figaro 3 col” & “pour cesar” (?) in blue pencil.
Signed in ink.
Sheet: 9 ⅞ x 12 ⅞ inches.  Image: 8 x 8 ⅝ inches.

Hermann-Paul remains to this day a prolific creative mind whose artistic importance is generally understated.  The reason for this injustice is simply that he was active for so long, and that he expressed himself in very different ways.  He is often known primarily for creating elegant and whimsical color lithographs, such as Les Petites Machines à Ecrire, published by L’Estampe Originale.

His relentless work as an illustrator on the other hand is not well known.  And yet, Hermann-Paul drew thousands of illustrations for famous publications such as Le Rire, L’Assiette au Beurre and Le Cri de Paris. Our drawing was published in Le Figaro on November 30th, 1899.  At the time Paris was in the grips of Exposition fever.  The capital was putting the finishing touches to the massive construction that was to show off its primacy among European cities.  National pride was running high, not least because Paris had avoided war and major insurrection for 30 years by then.  It lent the City of Lights cockiness towards outsiders.

In our drawing an “Englishman” is showing up at an upscale shop, tourist guide in hand.  The massive cashier looks down on him, arms crossed, from behind his desk.  The size of his ledger and of the pulpit itself, combined with his unwelcoming attitude of the teller, belittles the visitors.  The garçon de magasin is standing, apparently ready to serve customers.  He is no taller than the foreign visitor, yet his squinting eyes seem to dare the opposing figure to ask for something. The caption in Le Figaro reads “Nationalisme – Un Anglais!… Est-ce qu’il aurait l’aplomb de nous acheter quelque chose ?… ” (Nationalism – An Englishman! Does he have the confidence of actually buying something?).  While the foreigner’s face is not visible to us, his discomfort is palpable.  He stands at attention, as if frozen, and clearly gazes above the garçon’s head, afraid to make eye contact.  His boyhood cap, his casual cuffed plaid pants, and loose rain jacket clash with the formality of the store’s dress code.  We feel for this foreigner, a hapless victim of Parisian chauvinisme, who unwittingly walked in, likely poorly advised by his travel guide.  Hermann-Paul masterfully captures the moment, and the three attitudes, in just a few strokes of china ink.  He even adds color, while his drawing was to be reproduced only in black.  Since the drawing was reproduced photomechanically it is likely that color was added after the drawing came back from the printer’s.  Hermann-Paul commonly colored his drawings at that time, whether or not they were to be printed monochromatically.

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