Jean Effel’s Gentle Blasphemy

Despite his father’s insistence on a commercial career, French illustrator Jean Effel (1908-1982) pursued studies in music, art and philosophy. When his attempts to become a theatrical writer failed, he switched gears and started working as a caricaturist for newspapers in the 1930s. By the 1940s, his work was widely known and widely published, mostly in socialist/communist newspapers sponsored by the French Communist Party. After the second World War, he also branched out into book illustration (his work on Fables de la Fontaine is quite charming). Today, he’s mostly remembered (if barely) for his La création du monde (The Creation of the World).

I learned about Jean Effel (a nom de plume; François Lejeune was his true name) from a couple of books my parents had lying around when I was growing up. He was, I believe, my first exposure to cartoons, and the warm place his work holds in my heart is partly dictated by nostalgia. Only in part, however; few would deny that Effel’s animals and humans, his God, his Devil and his various angels are charming in that plump, childlike way that young animals are irresistibly cute. Some grouchy contrarians might get annoyed by that cuteness; the rest of us will enjoy his kind world. Oh, vexations and sarcasm are part of its tapestry, but nobody stays angry for long, pranks are witty but inoffensive, and problems are creatively resolved. Effel was an atheist, but his God was so kind and paternal that even priests didn’t object to their parishioners reading his work.

JeanEffel-divine
“How was it?” “Divine!” Even Effel’s handwriting/lettering is adorably rounded, childlike.
JeanEffel-Adam-and-Eve
“Leave my tools alone! It’s a sacred thing…” Note Adam’s scar, mute testimony to his missing rib.

To come back to my childhood, the twist in the story is that the books were in Russian: Soviet translations from French. The main collection of Jean Effel’s work was published in 1963 by the Hermitage Museum’s publishing press. The introduction calls him a « sincere friend of the Soviet Union », pointing out that Effel even learned to use Russian letters. In 1967, he was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize, which was mostly reserved for non-Soviets, foreign prominent Communists and supporters of the Soviet Union. (Nelson Mandela also had one, as did Linus Pauling and Pablo Picasso.

JeanEffelAmisA
Jean Effel’s present to the U.S.S.R.: a detailed map of France, with a hand-lettered dedication – “to my Soviet friends, with all my heart”.

It’s odd, but I can’t give you the exact date of the conception or publication of The Creation of the World: the Soviet book mentions that it was begun in 1950, English Wiki gives the date as 1945, French Wiki says 1953, Encyclopaedia Universalis (a French site) posits 1937, etc. Rather absurdly, there are a lot more detailed articles about Effel in Russian than in French, so for once I actually tend to trust the Russian side of things. It was clear that Effel genuinely liked Russians, and admired what he saw on his many visits to the U.S.S.R. I assume he only saw what he wanted to see (or what he was shown by his tour guides); still, he was clearly an idealist, a kind and gentle man by all accounts who believed in pacifism and loved animals.

A few pages from my 1963 Soviet edition:

EffelChiensA
Dog meteorology: “He’s raising his paw: now water will pour down…”
JeanEffelLoupsA
To each his own fairy tale: “But the poor wolf was so stuffed after eating grandmother that he had no appetite left for Red Riding Hood!”

EffelAnge01A

EffelAnge02A
The desk caption says “found objects”.
EffelAdamEveA
141: “He’s making projects for something…” 143: “How hilarious! If this keeps up, I’ll lose a rib from laughing too hard…” 144: “This is but a sketch. Just wait ’til you see the 3D version…”

A few years ago, I found another Russian edition in some Canadian (how books travel..) second hand bookstore, a collection in four volumes:

JeanEffel-CreationduMonde
Clockwise, left to right: Adam and Eve, Sky and Earth, Plants and Animals, and People.

The back covers are also worth a look:

JeanEffel-2

Oddly, Animals and Plants is marked as costing 75 kopecks, and the other three are 80 kopecks each, though this was clearly sold as a set with a slipcase.

JeanEffel-1

JeanEffel-3

JeanEffel-Devil
There can be no god without a devil! The charming Lucifer is probably my favourite character. This is a page from the Russian-Estonian edition. 173: “He likes us: he’s wagging his tail!” 174: “My name is Lucifer, but you can simply call me Lulu!” 175: “Oh, Mister Lucifer! You’re just the devil!” 176: “Perhaps I can tempt you with an apple?”
JeanEffel-CreationduMonde1997
The most recent edition of La création de l’homme, published in 1997.

A few other odds and ends from Effel’s multi-faceted career…

JeanEffel-Sylvain
Sylvain is inviting you… to visit the PROTECTION OF NATURE exhibit at the Paris Fair.

JeanEffel-egyptien

The French Postal Service issued a stamp in 1983 to celebrate Jean Effel and his sweet version of Marianne, a cheerful young woman with a red cap who symbolized the new French Republic.

Timbre-JeanEffel

~ ds

4 thoughts on “Jean Effel’s Gentle Blasphemy

  1. tref July 11, 2019 / 21:10

    RE-posted on twitter @trefology

    Like

  2. tref July 12, 2019 / 01:09

    I seem to remember his work from National Lampoon magazine. Or, maybe his work was parodied.

    Like

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