The notorious French anarchist-cartoonist Maurice Sinet, who signed his art Siné, died on Thursday at age 87. His favorite targets included capitalism, colonialism, and Christianity as well as all other major religions. And he viciously skewered them with considerable graphic dexterity and an incisive, often merciless—and occasionally crude and juvenile—wit.
Back in 1955, while still in his twenties, he’d already received France’s Black Humor award, Le Grand Prix de l’humour noir, for his stunning, Saul Steinberg-inspired “Complainte sans Paroles” collection. A few years later, L’Express began running, and occasionally rejecting, his controversial political cartoons and commentary. A lifelong provocateur, Siné’s support of the Algerians during their war of liberation against France during that time regularly raised the hackles of the newspaper’s readers. His milder, pun-filled cat books earned him widespread public popularity, and his other books include a biographical series titled Ma Vie, Mon Oeuvre, Mon Cul! (My Life, My Work, My Ass!). He was a Charlie Hebdo regular from the early 1980s until 2008, when a piece that could be viewed as either satiric or anti-Semitic, and which was potentially libelous—and for which he refused to apologize—led to his dismissal. He did, however, file, and win, a wrongful termination suit against his former employer.
At the time, he wrote in Libération magazine, “Sorry to disappoint, but I am the author neither of Mein Kampf nor of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. I am only, for the last 60 years, an anti-imbecile of the first order.” However, the avowed anti-Zionist had proclaimed in 1982, “Yes, I am anti-Semitic and I am not scared to admit it… I want all Jews to live in fear, unless they are pro-Palestinian. Let them die,” a comment for which he later apologized, but which is impossible to ignore. Cumulatively, all this makes passing judgment on his art as art… problematic, as they say in academia. But his situation is hardly unique, and not even that extreme, among highly respected professionals in the creative arts.
Indeed, back in the actual Mein Kampf days, Peter Behrens—now acclaimed as the Father of Industrial Design—joined the Nazis back when it was still illegal, as did esteemed graphic designer Ludwig Hohlwein, whose posters glorified and glamorized Hitler’s National Socialism. And as for American architect Philip Johnson: not only was he an enthusiastic Nazi propagandist throughout the 1930s, he was also outspoken in his hatred of Jews, comparing them to locusts.
The accomplishments of, and accusations against, Siné are by no means equal to theirs. But the issue is essentially the same: how to fairly evaluate, and appreciate, the quality of a work, not “regardless of” but “in addition to” the quality of its maker. And let’s not even digress into Charlie Hebdo, which I discussed here and here following last January’s unconscionable, murderous attacks on its office, and where he and other staffers often traded in grotesque racial and ethnic caricature.
I was first attracted to Siné, and his French and Belgian contemporaries such as Topor, Picha, and Wolinski, back in the 1960s. I’d become fascinated by his loose but deftly rendered drawings and captivated by an uncompromising vision that evoked the fierce indignation of George Grosz. Language was rarely a barrier, as the images expressively communicate with their sheer graphic force. And I continue to hold many of Siné’s graphics in high regard, with a particular, nostalgic fondness for the earlier work. And inasmuch as his passing has received scant attention in the American media, here, then, is a retrospective sampling of his life in pictures.
And for further reading about prejudiced cartoonists, click over to my Editorial Cartoonist Thomas Nast: Anti-Irish, Anti-Catholic Bigot?