« It’s true that Gourmelin’s world has everything to unsettle the general public: it contains as much horror as black humour, as much morbidness as sombre poetry. But to classify his drawings in a well-defined genre is a hopeless enterprise, and we well know how our times need clear, idiotic and exact labels. This relegates Gourmelin to some fuzzy area, a sort of no man’s land where one can find anything — even fanatics — but never a thing to eat or to drink. » — from the artist’s presentation in the anthology Les chefs-d’œuvre du dessin d’humour*(1965, Les éditions Planète; ).
While France’s Jean Gourmelin (1920-2011) started out as a painter and practiced — and often mastered — scores of artistic techniques and media (etching, technical drawing, sculpture, stained glass, wallpaper design, and so on…), he’s more commonly remembered for his stark black and white, wordless pen and ink drawings. Even as they remain open to interpretation, their power and eloquence are undeniable.
While his earliest drawings appeared in print sporadically from 1951, his crucial turning point was his 1961 encounter with Belgian writer-historian Jacques Sternberg, who encouraged Gourmelin to emphasise, in his work, idea over form. This canny shift in approach soon landed his newly-galvanised work in the pages of Planète, crucially, but also those, just as notable, of Bizarre, Midi-minuit Fantastique, Pariscope, Hara-Kiri… with occasional forays into other media, for instance some striking production design for a 1967 TV adaptation of Gustav Meyrink‘s classic novel, The Golem. Here’s an unexpected (and fine!) article in English about Gourmelin’s work on the film.
Here, then, are some (dark) highlights of Gourmelin’s work in the 1960s.
*It says something (flattering, if you ask me) about the Gallic character that Gourmelin’s work would fall under the category of “humorous”. We’re a looong way from, say… Dave Barry.
After an abortive stint in the French air force, he spent a few years fiddling around in Air France’s employ. His earliest professional drawings saw print in the venerable Le Rire (1894-1971) in 1958. After a few years of tentative, but increasingly encouraging results, he finally made his decisive move in 1965, joining the shaky ranks of full-time cartoonists.
Fittingly, Barbe was an unabashedly chatty man in person… while his work scarcely required words.
By the early 1970s, Barbe was increasingly devoting his pen and his interest to erotic subjects, and that’s the work he’s most associated with. Though that material held greater commercial clout, the work remained flawlessly executed and formally explorative… at least at first. Then, I’d argue that it became a bit of a cul-de-sac. Personally, I’ve always found it a bit chilly in its execution, quite a liability for erotica. Your kilométrage may vary.
Speaking of distances, Barbe was always a bit of a routard, an adventurous traveller. Here’s one instance of particular interest:
In the 1980s, on the initiative of his brother Michel Barbe, a history and geography teacher in Marseille, he took part in a conference given by Haroun Tazieff on the subject of volcanism. Owing to the quality of his drawing skill, he was allowed to accompany, in 1982, an exploratory scientific journey to the volcanic region of the Djibouti Rift. This expedition, led by Lucy co-discoverer Maurice Taieb, enlisted 32 professors who explored the basalt flows in the Assal Lake depression.
« The world dies over and over again, but the skeleton always gets up and walks. » — Henry Miller
A few months back, while assembling a post about polymorphic French surrealist Maurice Henry (1907-1984), I marvelled and chuckled at his multitude of skeleton-themed cartoons. I made a mental note to devote a Hallowe’en post to them… and that memo only floated to the top of my consciousness a couple of days ago. Just in time!
Trust me, I’m only scratching the surface of this man’s genius. If you’ll bear with me, we’re not done with him.
Henry was a French painter, poet, filmmaker, as well as a cartoonist. Between 1930 until his death, he published over 25,000 cartoons in 150 newspapers and a dozen books. His cartoons were generally surrealistic and satirical.
In 1926, he co-founded the magazine Le Grand Jeu with René Daumal, Roger Gilbert-Lecomte and Roger Vaillard, with whom he formed the “Phrères simplistes” collective. Henry provided poems, texts and drawings, while also making his debut as a journalist in Le Petit Journal.
He left Le Grand Jeu in 1933 to join André Breton’s group of Surrealists and their magazine Surréalisme au service de la Révolution. He also worked with the artist and photographer Artür Harfaux on the screenplay of twenty films, including ones starring the comic characters ‘Les Pieds Nickelés’ and ‘Bibi Fricotin’. Maurice Henry spent the final years of his life making paintings, sculptures and collages. He passed away in Milan, Lombardy, in 1984.
The answer? My default solution, which is to focus on some small parcel of the much greater whole. A number of Henry’s works bear revisiting (for instance, Les métamorphoses du vide , a truly groundbreaking picture book about the world of dreams; À bout portant , a collection of literary portraits; or Les 32 positions de l’androgyne [1961, also issued in the US in 1963], a chapbook of… gender recombinations) and deserve a turn in the spotlight.
To quote co-anthologists Jacques Sternberg and/or Michael Caen in their indispensable Les chefs-d’oeuvre du dessin d’humour (1968, Éditions Planète, Louis Pauwels, director):
Surrealism — he was part of the group before 1930 — left its mark on him and it’s because he was already well-cultured as he launched his career that he was among the first, in the desert that was the publishing world of the 1930s, to attempt unusual drawings calling upon often startling ingredients, such as poetry, black humour, the fantastic and the absurd. He caused no less of a surprise by doing away with captions, at a time when bawdy jabbering was the fashion all over. In short, Maurice Henry was indisputably a pioneer of that grey and stinging brand of humour that would explode like an H-bomb some fifteen years later.