Georges Méliès: Anti-Boulangist Caricature and the Incohérent Movement
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Georges Méliès:
Anti-Boulangist Caricature and the Incohérent Movement

Throughout his entire life, Georges Méliès (1861-1938) was a "compulsive draughtsman," as both Paul Hammond and Paolo Cherchi Usai put it.1 As a schoolboy, Méliès recalled being possessed by the "demon of drawing," an "artistic passion" that distracted him from his studies of the written word.2 This passion for drawing would continue throughout his life, encompassing his overlapping careers as an illusionist, a caricaturist, and a cinematographist.3 During the first three decades of the twentieth century, Méliès published caricatures in French magic magazines like L'Illusionniste and Passez Muscade and drew countless pre-production sketches for the mise-en-scène of his films, as well as countless ex post facto drawings of specific film tableaux—some hand-colored—done from memory many years after the films themselves. Quite a few of Méliès' previously unpublished drawings have been published in recent years with the renewed critical attention given to his entire oeuvre,4 but discussion of Méliès' graphic output in its own right is still largely nonexistent.

Many of Méliès' drawings were unpublished during his lifetime, but this was not the case for the caricatures published under the pseudonym "Geo. Smile" on the oversized color covers of the anti-Boulangist weekly La Griffe from August 8, 1889 to January 30, 1890.5 The lack of attention given to Méliès' caricatures for La Griffe is not solely due to the scarcity of surviving copies of the journal, but is also explained by the fact that many of these politicized images are not easy to reconcile with the conception of Méliès as a whimsical, lighthearted trickster—the so-called "magician of Montreuil," a persona that was effectively invented during the late 1920s and 1930s by the journalists, critics, and amateur film historians who [End Page 305] "rediscovered" Méliès selling toys in a Paris train station.6 Through interviews and articles during this period, Méliès participated in their selective re-reading of his work. In his memoirs, written near the end of his life and published posthumously, Méliès glossed over his work with La Griffe in only three sentences, recalling that this "was his only foray into politics, which interested him infinitely less than artistic creations and inventions."7 These creations and inventions, his memoirs go on to emphasize, centered on magic theater and, not long after that, the cinematograph.

Thus, Méliès dichotomizes art and politics, while disavowing the ways in which his drawings for La Griffe were not only political images but also "artistic creations" of a very particular and historically specific kind. While the "myth of Méliès" (which Méliès himself helped create) has largely determined our understanding of his creative work and his legacy, this mythology effectively suppresses both the manifestly satirical content of much of his work and its resonance with the historical avant-garde. In this essay, I argue that Méliès' work in the graphic arts—inasmuch as it cuts across caricature and cinema while invoking recognizable tropes of the Incohérent movement—implicated political discourse, along with elements of avant-garde aesthetics, in modern mass-mediated visual culture.

In his memoirs, written some forty years after the Boulanger affair, Méliès reduced Boulangism to its namesake, the former general Georges Boulanger, claiming that Boulanger had tried to overthrow the Republic and put a dictatorship in its place.8 More or less similar interpretations of the Boulanger affair continue to have great appeal,9 but revisionist historians have provided a far more nuanced and complicated account of the crisis the Boulanger affair constituted by stressing the economic and political factors that conspired to position Boulangism as a viable (if relatively short-lived) coalition that brought together elements of the left and the right to threaten the French Third Republic during the late 1880s and early 1890s.10

Since the early nineteenth century, Paris had been the center of a vibrant culture of political caricature. La Griffe was edited by...


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