I have a lovely little portfolio in my possession—which long lay undetected and -appreciated underneath a tall stack of much bigger books–discovered joyfully just the other day: the French artist and illustrator Guy Arnoux’s Les caractères observés par un vieux Philosophe du haut de la fenêtre (1920). Here we have examples of visual caricatures transcending the centuries: a twentieth-century artist depicts an ancien regime “old philosopher’s” armchair observations of court life and characters. I looked up Arnoux and his works and quickly found this same book as a lot in an upcoming Swann auction, with an estimated value of $400-$600. My copy has some edge issues, so I’m sure it’s not worth that much, but it is charming nonetheless. My best guess as to its origins is my great-aunt Margaret, a high-school teacher who was quite the art aficionado, but it’s a bit simplistic for her tastes, I think.
I happen to love this simplistic, neo-folkish and -primitive mid-twentieth-century style of illustration. Arnoux clearly reveled in it; I found an article about him in an arts periodical published during the Great War in which he tied his artistic aims to that epic event: Mr. Arnoux’s ambition it to be an artist of the people; to fix in their naive minds the memorable events of the greatest war humanity has ever know…..[his] theory of art is almost cubistic. “We must eliminate from artistic representation all that is secondary, all that is unnecessary,” he will tell you. “We can make good photographs; why, then, repeat them in art.” Thus, the Japanese and the Chinese are, in his opinion, the only great and true artists. [His focus is on] the simple reproductions dear to the people, hundreds of thousands of which are sold on the street corners for the modest sums of 12 sous each. Yet he regrets that he cannot make them even cheaper, for he would like to have them everywhere, especially in the hands of the children. Well now you see the inspiration for the cartoonish depictions, but Versailles is an odd setting for a “artist of the people”—I guess everyone was indulging in post-war escapism.
Simple images of the past, and Arnoux’s present.