Les Combats Modernes
August 25, 2014 | by Robert Pranzatelli
Given the recent centennial of the beginning of the Great War (as it was then known), I’ve found myself thinking again of Lucien Métivet, the French artist I wrote about here last year, best known for his works from the 1890s. The advent of the war brought an abrupt halt to the publication of Le Rire (Laughter), the weekly journal of humor to which Métivet was a regular contributor, but its publisher, Félix Juven, soon relaunched it with a small but significant change of title: now it was Le Rire Rouge (The Red Laugh), presumably in recognition of the blood of France’s soldiers and the dark nature of the times.
It had become customary for Le Rire to start each issue with Métivet’s drawings up front, and in the journal’s first new issue, of November 21, 1914, his was the opening image: an energetic, optimistic young conscript. The picture’s cheerleading join-the-war-effort ambience is given a discreetly poignant touch by a telling detail just outside the frame: to the upper right we see the typeset words “Au conscrit Maurice Juven”—a dedication to a young conscript whose surname suggests a close relationship to the magazine’s publisher, a longtime friend of the artist. Clearly this dedicatee was, like all soldiers, carrying with him into danger the hearts of those who loved him. With this single, seemingly exuberant image, the very personal stakes for the creators of Le Rire Rouge, and indeed for all of France, were acknowledged.
That same opening page contained a note to readers, summed up in a quote from the dramatist Henri Lavedan: “Le soldat français rit, partout. C’est une de ses manières.” (“The French soldier laughs, everywhere. It’s part of his manner.”) True to its intentions as stated in that initial letter to readers, for the next four years Le Rire Rouge maintained, along with its new name, its new theme: the war in all its aspects, from the quotidian to the grim, served up in a range of styles but with loyalty to France never in doubt. The year 1915 began with a drawing depicting the passing of a giant broom from the previous year to the new, each of the “years” personified as a heroic woman (variations on Marianne, the Goddess of Liberty, a popular symbol of France), ready to sweep up the war. A few weeks later, a depiction of “modern combat” made reference to the shields, helmets, grenades, and cannons of wars past.
As Métivet continued to deliver his contributions, usually three images per week, and the months passed, perhaps these cartoons—which, like many editorial cartoons, were not always designed to provoke laughter but often rather a nod of recognition, and a sense of affirmation and solidarity—began to feel to readers like a chronicle of the era, albeit one entirely partisan to the French cause. In May, the United States’s outrage at the sinking of the Lusitania by a German submarine prompted Métivet’s “Bulletin de victoire” (“Forecast of Victory”), with its memorable depiction of a furious Uncle Sam; the forecast, however, was premature, as the U.S. was not in the least eager to enter the war. As the horrors continued, the darkness and bitterness of the times wove their way through the images of subsequent years, such as, for example, one for New Year’s Day 1916 in which the Grim Reaper pays a courtesy call on Kaiser Wilhelm II (“I owe him a card!”).
In February 1917, Métivet portrayed war as a game of cards between the valorous Marianne-as-warrior-woman and an ugly, brutish warrior hag—his standard depiction of Germany, often accompanied by vultures and skulls. France has “all the aces,” thanks to the cigognes (“storks”) air force squadron to which the drawing is dedicated. Six months later, Métivet recast this image for La Baïonnette, another war-themed publication, transforming the game of cards into one of chess. As a color center spread, more than four times the size of its black and white prototype, the reworked version provided a canvas well suited to Métivet the renowned poster artist, with his longstanding taste for the symbolic. We see in the lower left that the French shield is decorated with the emblems of its Allies (now including the United States), as the warrior-goddess, clearly out of patience, makes a critical move toward winning the game. Battlefield smoke forms a backdrop, but a glorious sunrise is breaking behind the winner-to-be. And in a detail characteristic of Métivet at his best, the helmets of each player form a parallel staging of the drama: each takes the shape of a horse in battle. France’s helmet is Pegasus, rearing up to fly to victory—a victory that in reality was still more than a year away.
Le Rire Rouge continued on through the Allied victory in November 1918 and for several subsequent weeks, ending with issue number 215, dated December 28, 1918. Two weeks prior, Métivet had included among his contributions a simple drawing titled “Le retour du prisonnier” (“The Return of the Prisoner”) that acknowledged the personal devastation apparent in those who had “returned from Hell” as broken men. Its pathos is too deliberate, too conventional, to impress one as art, but its worth is in its gesture of humanity. As I look at it I think back to the image with which Le Rire Rouge began—that eager young conscript—and I wonder what became of Maurice Juven.
I do know what Félix Juven did next. With his magazine’s first issue of the new year, dated January 4, 1919, he dropped the word “rouge,” reset the numbering to indicate a new series, and Le Rire returned. Issue No. 1 opened with a Métivet drawing that addressed the hope of a lasting peace, with the title “L’ébauche,” which can mean “first draft,” “first signs,” or “beginning.”
Robert Pranzatelli is the founding editor of the Folio Club, an independent publishing project. He is also a longtime staff member of Yale University Press.