Lettering in the Butter Dish

Posted inThe Daily Heller
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At the turn of the century, the French Republic was threatened by a military-church-aristocracy coalition and a huge bureaucratic machine dominated by L’assiette au Beurre or the Butter Dish — the entrenched job-holders who dispensed favors for a price. They were despised but curiously tolerated.

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During this period Paris was emerging as the art capital of the world. The Belle Epoch was in full swing. Artists were streaming in from Europe, joining ad hoc Salons des Independent. Many socially conscious artists turned to anarchism as a way to transcend the insularity of bohemianism and openly vent their political frustrations. They often created cartoons as a weapon of their struggle and, therefore, required outlets that projected their images beyond the hermetic salons and ateliers. It was propitious that in 1901 Samuel Schwarz founded a satiric visual weekly, aptly titled L’Assiette au Beurre, expressly poised to attack the functionaries who made their fortunes off the sweat of the citizenry. One of many graphic periodicals at the time, it not only critiqued the ruling classes but altered social mores in the process. The journal provided a matchless opportunity to exhibit biting satires within a virulent, highly innovative artistic environment whose professed mission as the overseer of social foible and immoral excess was successfully carried out for the next twelve years

L’Assiette published weekly; its issues were based on single themes that scrutinized specific events or international personalities, such as Franz Kupka’s satiric trilogy devoted to “Money,” “Peace,” and “Religion.” Usually a single artist was responsible for all the artwork in an entire issue — approximately sixteen large-scale drawings (some reproduced in two or three colors). At various times, groups of contributors were invited to tackle a particular bête noire, including the faulty judicial system, the hypocritical Catholic Church hierarchy, or the inept medical profession. The most memorable single issues of L’Assiette are those executed by artists with fervent biases, such as Vadasz on homosexuality, Veber on Reconcentration Camps in the Transvaal, Gris on Suicide, and Hermann-Paul on Lourdes, the religious retreat that he believed exploited atavistic superstitions.

This Christmas issue, illustrated by Demetrios Galanis, is a secular reworking of the story of Christ wherein he falls prey to the venal Butter Dish; it is unique for its incredible hand lettered text, designed in a Gothic manner by Galanis

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Some graphic commentaries nibbled rather than took deep bites, such as those aimed at snobs, cafes, sports, high fashion, automobiles, and technology. A curiously provocative issue entitled Le Lit (the bed) was devoted to the sleeping habits of various social groups — from rich to poor, as well as married couples, prostitutes, and prisoners. Predications was a futuristic view of the human condition by Roubille. Another special issue was devoted to the second coming of Jesus Christ, this time resurrected into the “modern” fin de siècle world: It speculates on how the Son of God was repulsed by many deeds (i.e. those of organized religion) done in his name. Juan Gris’ pre-Cubist contributions revealed his fascination with geometric formulations predating his later experimental canvases. And Nabis artist, Felix Vallotton’s special issue of original lithographs, titled Crime and Punishments, exquisitely printed on heavy paper stock, wherein each, original stone lithograph is given an unprecedented single side of the page, are a masterpiece of brutish expressionism aptly representing the cruelty of France’s criminal system as well as punishments meted out by clergy and parents on children and adults alike.

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About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →