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This page contains both original essays and comments on postcards as well as articles formally published in Metro News, the bi-monthly bulletin of the Metropolitan Postcard Club while I served as editor. Many of these reprinted articles have been enhanced on this website by adding additional content.
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19. Aug 2016 - Feb 2017
18. Aug 2015 - June 2016
17. Jan 2015 - June 2015
16. July 2014 - Dec 2014
15. Jan 2014 - June 2014
14. July 2013 - Dec 2013
13. Jan 2013 - June 2013
12. July 2012 - Dec 2012
11. Jan 2012 - June 2012
10. July 2011 - Dec 2011
9. Jan 2011 - June 2011
8. July 2010 - Dec 2010
7. Jan 2010 - June 2010
6. July 2009 - Dec 2009
5. Jan 2009 - June 2009
4. July 2008 - Dec 2008
3. Jan 2008 - June 2008
2. July 2007 - Dec 2007
1. Aug 2006 - June 2007
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The End of Real
Years ago, while living in Baltimore, a friend paid a late night visit to the door of my studio shouting, “You have to come quick, there are elephants in the street.” I didn’t quite grasp what he was saying but there would be no clarification as he dashed out before any questions reached my lips. Though I felt the victim of some bad joke, I rushed down behind him just in case there was something to his brief story. Sure enough to my surprise, the street lights illuminated a long line of elephants hurrying down the wide avenue. The circus had come to town.
What we view as ordinary or spectacular often depends on our vantage point. For the animals and their handlers, that night in Baltimore must have just been another night of countless nights on the road, moving between rail yard and arena. For me, the scene unfolding before my eyes was quite unusual, possibly bizarre enough to be dubbed surreal except all of it was perfectly real. Even so, I felt privileged to witness this event as if I were let in on a secret that only a few would ever know. I suppose this feeling of awe and privilege is little different from the experience one gets while attending an actual circus, but if it is really something so special, why did the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus hold its final show this month? Firms go out of business all the time, but the circus isnÕt any other business, it is a cultural institution. The inability of a society to maintain long held elements of its culture is a sure sign of a paradigm shift. This one was long in coming, and it reveals much about our us.
Entertainment in the form of trained exotic animals and acrobats with abilities beyond that of normal men has probably been around as long as civilization. Ancient Rome was certainly no stranger to spectacle; their circuses were many and often housed in enormous venues. The modern circus first made it appearance in London in 1768 when cavalryman Philip Astley set up an amphitheater to display trick riding skills in which he was well accomplished. Demonstrations of equestrian skills and mock cavalry battles dominated the circus for many decades. Even today, horsemanship remains an integral part of many shows. The first show of this type to reach the United States was established in Philadelphia in 1792 with the arrival of John Bill Ricketts, a Scot from the Hughes Royal Circus in London.
The British equestrian model was eventually built upon when P.T. Barnum’s Great Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Hippodrome was established in 1871. By this time, P.T. Barnum already had a long career as a showman displaying exotic animals, oddities, and freaks out of his American Museum in New York City. Two devastating fires destroyed this business, but he was persuaded by Dan Castello and William Cameron Coup to partner with their circus instead of retiring. Not only did this become an immense show with many features, Barnum helped to make this circus a truly American experience with the addition of boosterism and exaggeration that he was so well known for. To expand their audience further, they began using trains that could hold their circus wagons, which allowed them to transport the show all across the country. This not only raised revenue, it exposed many more people to the circus, which in turn helped engrained it into American popular culture.
The travailing circus, moving from one small town to the next is now a true part of Americana. When the word circus is spoken, many if not most of us conjure up the image of people gathering from near and far to watch a large tent going up in a broad Midwestern field knowing that some extraordinary event is to follow. This vision may be far from our own experience of the circus, but it still rings true because of the way it has tied itself to our national myth. It is now part of the pioneer spirit where there are always new experiences to be had, and new opportunities awaiting us. If this connection seems tenuous, we only need look at similar shows like Buffalo BillÕs Wild West. Though not technically a circus, this show had the same appeal because it spoke to its audience in the same way. This show, more than the circus presented a clear story line through Western themes that directly promoted the American myth. The circus and related shows not only provided entertainment, they were a living example of people exploring frontiers, which had its own appeal. On many real photo postcards, the nomadic life that many circus folk lived, resembled that of settlers searching for opportunity.
After P.T. Barnum died in 1891, his circus merged with one owned by James Anthony Bailey to form Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth. Between 1897 and 1902 they made a tour of Europe where their expansive format of animal acts plus feats of daring, acrobatic skills and strength greatly influenced the future makeup of overseas shows. While postcard publishers in the United States were just getting their feet wet at this time, the postcard craze was already well established in Europe allowing many postcards to be produced publicizing the Barnum & Bailey spectacle. Large sets of circus cards were produced in both France and Germany.
The topic of spectacle had already been tackled by German publishers before the arrival of Barnum & Bailey, which can be seen on early Gruss aus cards of the 1890Õs. While most postcards at this time depicted site specific views, a good number of generics were also produced to cover events like fairs, parades, and the circus. Acrobats, clowns, and animals were all featured on these artist drawn cards, but the overriding message was to generate the feeling of awe and fun through scenes of action and excitement that was far from ordinary These cards could be issued as generics because the emphasis was no longer on place but on what happens there. This perspective opened new potential for postcard production that would be further exploited in the century to follow.
When Bailey died in 1906, Barnum & Bailey Ltd. was purchased by the Ringling Brothers Circus. Both entities continued to operate separately under their own names until they merged into the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1919. While this merger created a great institution, the 1920’s also marked the beginning of a cultural shift toward a preference in illusion. The golden age of postcards that introduced countless people to new creatures, cultures, and places, was now being supplanted by moving pictures. Technology had introduced a new more exciting way of being entertained that would slowly eat away at the popularity of both postcards and the circus. This downward spiral would only continue with the introduction of radio programing, television shows and even home video. As each media siphoned off its own disciples, the economic model of the circus became ever more difficult to maintain.
In ancient times a circus was defined as a space where horses race around an altar. In the modern big top a tent pole replaces the altar, but not all of its significance. Its exact placement was sometimes determined through geomancy so that the pole itself became the axis mundi connecting two worlds. This renders the space beneath the tent sacred and the goings on within magical. While there may not have been any clear cut esoteric significance to these pagan-like rituals, superstitions were closely tied to all forms of show business and some were followed religiously. These strong connections between the circus and the land have slowly disappeared as shows began being set up on the asphalt of parking lots or have moved behind the doors of the arena. Rising costs led Ringling Brothers to hold their last show under the big top in 1956 before moving indoors for good. While this preserved the show, it eliminated an iconic part of the circus that had created as much meaning as atmosphere.
Adrenalin producing rides at amusement parks have grown larger and more numerous over the past years to entice visitors seeking greater thrills. While these parks have long created stiff competition for the circus, the coming of the digital age has proven to be the tipping point. Movies and video games now provide us with as many fanciful creatures, car chases, and explosions as we can stand and then some. There is no longer any great or impossible feat that technology can’t render in believable terms. What chance does a preforming elephant or tiger have at amusing us when pit against a talking dinosaur? The greatest acrobat alive looks like an amateur when compared to the powers of super heroes on the screen. Real life as it turns out can no longer compete against the fantasies our virtual world provides. Animation also has the added benefit of not attracting fierce attacks by animal rights groups like those that decimated the most popular circus acts. New rules, regulations, costs, protest, and now the fear of clowns have all worked against presenting the real, for the real will always be fraught with imperfection. Virtual reality is not just more convenient to an impatient society, it allows us to hide from the distasteful parts of life. Some would rid the world of every imperfection and they see the circus as an obstacle on their way to creating a better world. For those of us that see the world as a dance of complementaries, the circus represents the balance we are looking for.
Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus is just one of many, and so the show will go on after its closure, but if this seems okay you have missed the point. The end of this institution shows how much we have taken our focus off the real. Much of the spectacle behind the circus might have always been the result of exaggeration, fantasy and illusion, but we were still presented with actual performers, real human beings pressing their talents and strength to the limit. Even if the animals were trained to perform unnatural acts, we still saw the capabilities and beauty of real living creatures. When the true nature of things can no longer satisfy, it creates a false sense of the world that becomes more difficult to separate from fantasy. When our own lives satisfy us less, will we hide ourselves more and more into what is not real? We already live in a time when truth has become a scarce commodity.
There are those who have complained for some time now that our culture is in decline, that there has been a gradual disintegration of the arts into mere entrainment devoid of anything that requires intellectual thought. Some blame this on democracy itself claiming that our efforts to create an egalitarian society has caused us to dumb down our culture. To become all-inclusive means uniting behind that which is meaningless and accepting a laminated world that we cannot directly touch. While I agree that our current fascination with spectacle is a way of commodifying life by denying us real experiences, the problem is not so clear cut. When exactly was that golden age when we were all bards, artists and scholars? There is a tendency to lament the end of values and ideals that few ever really embraced. I too have seen things pass that I wish hadn’t, but it seems to me that people have always been people holding the same fears and desires. Being human doesn’t change. If culture reflects society, then it is only the details that change, not what people want from it. This does not mean that we are free of danger since cultural shifts can diminish the way we live our lives and even end life. Too much corporate influence over culture often resets goals toward profit over public interest, which can easily distort culture in unhealthy ways. Entertainment that embraces thrills and fast pace action will not disappear any time soon because our body chemistry demands it. As corporations manipulate our dopamine levels, turning us into addicts for ever greater profit, cultural values can fray but they don’t completely unravel.
While growing interest in spectacle is blamed for many of our woes, these interests are nothing new. People have always been attracted to what can carry them out of normal experience and the thrills this provides. If the circus is presented to us as low culture, then why has it been able to provide subject matter for so many fine artists that we esteem today. Those that bemoan honky-tonk will pay millions for representations of it if captured by Degas, Lautrec or Seurat. As much as we stereotype culture by class, high and low culture does not follow these boundaries. A true understanding of art comes from within and not from schooling or wealth. Culture cannot be dictated by elitists. By insisting that people believe in things that they don’t believe in or relate to is the best way to hollow out a culture. We are suffering from the consequences of that now. Human desires may be suppressed or hidden from view but they wonÕt go away. Fortunately, there are those outside of the mainstream that will always strive to push boundaries even while society pushes back preferring to remain in ignorance along with the comfort it provides. While efforts to coopt rebellious sprits have grown more efficient, these two positions will continue to exist as complements because we have always sought and found meeting places in between. The circus has long been one of these meeting places that gives us insights into our own longings. Unfortunately what remains of the circus has largely become elitist by the sheer price of a ticket; its traditional popularist content diminished for a new type of audience.
There are things within popular culture that most of us are drawn to because they fall out of everyday expectations. We may condemn those who break social norms and expectations, but they also become an attractive model for the freedom we do not possess. This is very evident in the countless postcards of actresses that woman craved at the turn of the 20th century. Circus performers were also generally held in low esteem by the greater society because they lived apart from social norms, and yet their freedom from these very norms remained an attraction as any young boy who tried to run away with the circus could testify. It doesnÕt matter that the reality of circus life was far less glamorous than we have come to believe. In many ways, the circus was a last refuge for outcasts, but the need for a resolution to our own conflicting nature is so great that the circus had to take on mythical proportions. The myths that surround the circus has had much more influence on our society and who we believe we are than the entertainment we have sought from it.
Some make the claim that the term Circus is derived from the Greek Circe, a priestess of demons and practitioner of magical arts. There is indisputably a dark side to the collection of outsiders that make up a circus, which of course is part of why we are drawn to it. The acts of trapeze artists and wire walkers are often characterized by the phrase, death defying to prove the performers have skills beyond the ordinary. It is danger that defines the extraordinary. The introduction of safety ropes and nets has since done much to diminish the sense of spectacle for it raises the question of how special the performers really are. The circus business however remains dangerous. Recent accidents have proven that added safety precautions do not always protect from injury or death, but they still dilute the experience nonetheless. We all know that accidents can beset any of us and fear them, but we come to watch performers because they are supposedly more special than us.
Then there are the freaks first introduced by P.T. Barnum that speak to something hidden in us. They are now usually relegated to side shows with clowns taking their place in the ring. Philip Ashley’s circus included clowns who were meant to hold the attention of the audience between equestrian acts, but they have since evolved into more complex characters that are an integral part of any show. As the archetype of the Fool, they are a mix of funny and scary representing the comedy and tragedy of the human condition. They allow the audience to face parts of their own nature that they would never publicly expose. This is the flip side to spectacle that goes beyond our pleasure points to satisfy deeper cravings. The failure to sell enough tickets to keep the greatest show on earth alive has more to do with modern business models faced with competition from flashier more convenient digital technology than with content. There will always be an audience for the deviant and mysterious world that popular culture provides whether it comes in the form of the circus or not.
Even in our high-tech age, postcards have not completely disappeared. Some of this has to do with our natural attraction to imagery that continues in an age when we are saturated with pictures. Many old circus posters now appear as reproductions on modern continental cards. Their numbers are so great that they seem to rival antique circus postcards produced a century ago, but we should not equate the two. The current market is based on a niche audience interested in nostalgia or design, not a larger desire to experience the circus. While some say that there is danger in substituting pictures for real experience, I say picture postcards have always played this role. They might be a substitute for experiences, but for the most part they became popular because they were either a reminder of a real experience or represented experiences unlikely to ever occur. The decline of the circus mimics the decline in picture postcards, but is this anything more than a shift in focus? I see culture changing, not declining; the forces that are now diminishing interest in the circus are little different from the human desires that gave birth to it. The circus is dead, long live the circus!
Guignol and the Great War
Postcards are basically a pictorial medium where a bold illustration draws attention and then relays a simple message. This message can be further embellished or explained with text, but writing is usually kept to a minimum. The addition of text can become more important during wartime when relaying propaganda is often its primary goal. Some of these cards are nearly given over to witting containing proclamations, bits of speeches or patriotic poems. One such set is odder than most in that hand written correspondence is printed over most of its surface. Even more odd are the small illustrations pushed to the side that contain stiffly drawn figures with hands that look as if they were carved out of wood. While this set is unusual from any perspective, it is only confusing if the cultural references are lacking. When these postcards were first published in France, there would have been little trouble recognizing that the characters names come from the Guignol puppet theater.
Guignol is now synonymous with puppet shows in France, but the name was only originally applied to the main character in a particular type of show first developed by Laurent Mourguet in the late 18th century. Mourguet was an illiterate silk weaver from Lyon who fell on hard times once the French Revolution disrupted international trade. After he failed to make ends meet through peddling, he took up dentistry, which in those days required little more than a strong hand, a pair of pliers, and medicine to kill the pain. As any good salesman knows, a good sense of humor is essential if an edge is to be gained on the competition, and so Mourquet began putting on amusing puppet shows that would attract those passing by on the street. Although his shows were modest affairs, he demonstrated a considerable talent for puppetry that slowly created a following.
Mourguet’s first puppet shows followed the classic model of the Neopolitan commedia dell’arte that arose in the early-17th century. These shows followed very simple plot lines largely revolving around the subject of love, sex, and jealousy, which had pleased crowds since similar comedies were performed in ancient Greece. Their characters’ exaggerated qualities were almost archetypal in there representations servants, soldiers, and fools. A favorite character was Pulcinella, a county bumpkin who acts without regard to consequences but always manages to win in the end. He constantly demonstrates his contradictory nature, “I am Prince of everything, Lord of land and main. Except for my public whose faithful servant I remain.” Many regional spin-offs were based on Pulcinella who turned into Polichinelle in France and Punch of Punch & Judy in Great Britain.
As time went by, Mourguet tried to increase his audience by tying his story lines to daily events, and presenting them through parler lyonnais, the local dialect of Lyon. This improvisational aspect made his shows much more popular, and by 1804 he was able to earn his entire living as a puppeteer. While these innovations were important, his real success seems to rest on the characters he developed. First to be introduced was a cobbler named Gnafron who embodied the local spirit of Lyon. He was followed in 1809 by the silk weaver Guignol, who was possibly named after a real Lyonnais canut. While Guignol also represents a local spirit, his attributes were similar to that of Polichinelle, who was Mourguet’s favorite puppet and the one that first highlighted his shows. These additions allowed Guignol to become a more complicated figure. Though always self serving and reluctant to assume responsibility, he nevertheless always manages to turn up on top of any situation in spite of his flaws. This of course is where the humor lies, but his appeal draws from something much deeper. He is generally recognized as the common working man in who the audience can recognize their own faults and shortcomings as well as their longings and ambitions. It is this ability to relate on a personal level that that drew in an ever expanding audience, one that grew well beyond the local concerns of Lyon. By the time Mourguet died in 1844, his puppet theater was a cultural tradition that lived on through his children and their descendants.
While most story lines of this puppet theater revolved around the interactions between Gnafron and Guignol, other characters like the police officer Flageolet and Guignol’s wife Madelon came to play important supporting roles. This cast allowed the stories to grow more complicated and they added variation without compromising the basic humor and respect through which the peasants and laborers of Lyon were represented. As these characters became well known in French popular culture, they became the tools of many political cartoonists; a trade that was quickly expanding with the steady rise of printed publications. The first of these satirical publications was the Journal de Guignol, established in Lyon in 1865. Though short lived, it set up a standard of using the Guignol Theater to reveal political and social hypocrisy. Though often used to attack the whirlwind of change sweeping through the 19th century, Guignol basically became the voice of the street that could be used by those holding any position. In many ways he was tied to the rebellious nature of France that remained unsettled since the Revolution.
French authorities also grew wary of the inherent power to be found in the Guignol character. While he upholds the democratic ideals of the French republic, he constantly challenges any seat of power. By mid-19th century, scripts for these puppet shows had to be officially approved before they were put on while Guignol cartoons were often censored and the periodicals publishing them even shut down. Despite these efforts to suppress dissent, political cartoons only further enhanced the presence and respectability of the irreverent Guignol Theater, as well as its creator. By the time postcards were being made, it was common to see puppet shows being performed out on the streets of Paris to the promenades of beachside resorts. On the hundredth anniversary of Guignol, funds began being raised to put a monument honoring his creation on the streets of Lyon. By 1912 a bronze bust of Mourguet stood atop this monument, and the following year saw the establishment of the Société des Amis de Guignol (the Société des Amis de Lyon and Guignol since 1947).
While the citizens of Lyon had long represented themselves through the figure of Guignol, the universal qualities of this character made him appealing to propagandists once the Great War broke out. Symbols that people can easily relate to are important in creating a unified national identity, and this spirit of unity is essential when facing the complexities of war. Individuals must be made to overlook self-interests and the subtleties of the conflict to create a single minded stance; it must only be us and them. Like a mascot, Guignol’s image was placed on a variety of military equipment including battle flags of Lyon regiments, but there was also a growing effort to make him a symbol of France. Guignol, Gnafron, and Madelon had already graced postcards for years, and they would now be required to perform in war related narratives. Even though the need for national symbols is well understood and the rush to find them understandable, the use of Guignol is a strange choice. There is always danger in using a populist platform for while it may initially help rally support, there is always the risk of loosing control over it. At a time when the government wanted everyone to support the War without question, they began promoting a mythic character famous for ignoring rules.
In 1914, the illustrator Jean Coulon produced a postcard set for S. Farges that publicized the Exposition Internaionale opening in Lyon that May. These cards featured the characters of the Guignol Theater that were so closely associated with the city. When war broke out only two months later, the exposition quickly fell into decline. Postcard sales must have plummeted as the public turned its attention to more pressing and exciting matters, but this also opened a new opportunity for both artist and publisher. Even though there had been efforts to sanitize the Guignol Theater since the late 19th century to make it more acceptable for children, Guignol still seemed the perfect character through which a new satirical magazine could confront the conflict. Not only could he speak for most Frenchmen, his continuous good fortune also represented the success of good over evil. Coulon agreed to provide Farges with illustrations featuring these puppets that would appear in print as well as on collotype postcards. This type of dual publication was quite common at the time because the great popularity of postcards could enhance sales of periodicals.
The first postcard in the Guignol war set, La Guerre, is dated August 2, 1914, and shows Guignol saying goodbye to his friend Gnafron as he leaves to enlist in the army. This forms the basic division in the continuing narrative; Guignol will represent the idealized spirit of France at the battlefront, while his wife Madelon and the older Gnafron represent the more common concerns of the home front. This card is unusual for it is one of the few in which there is direct dialogue between characters. The texts on most of the cards that follow take the form of correspondence written in rhymed verse. While the expected poetic slang of Lyon is left in these letters to add local color, it is toned down so that the cards can find a wider audience. Even though all cards are numbered and dated to appear sequential, they stand independent of one another. Guignol and Gnafron write back and forth, each addressing a new issue particular to that moment in the War without any back and forth dialogues. Each character becomes an allegory to their way of perceiving the War. By not dwelling on their relationship, this device keeps the interest of the audience focused on the relevant issue at hand.
The lack of dialogue on these cards is very representative of the two worlds created by the Great War, a situation that was generally shared by all belligerents. Despite the vast amount of correspondence exchanged between those serving on the front lines and those back home, strict censorship prevented families from knowing little of consequence beyond whether their loved one serving was alive or dead. The lack of real news created an atmosphere where people at home had no idea of the hardships that persisted at the front, which made their own deprivations loom larger in their minds. Troops returning home on leave discovered a growing disconnect between these two perceived realities. Most French postcards did little to enlighten anyoneÕs perceptions, presenting little more than generic narratives emphasizing bravery, endurance or victory.
News at the time was also highly censored; reporters could not get to the front lines and were forbidden to talk to soldiers. Subject to the Espionage Act, they had to worry that publishing material not approved by the military could lead to their arrest and possible execution. Civilian censors were entrusted with dealing with political problems at home while the Ministry of War directly controlled the French Press Bureau that dispensed all news. All printed material sent through the mail was further scrutinized by provincial control commissions set up throughout France to enforce censorship. What people at home learned of the War was only what the generals thought they should hear. All news was designed to aid the war effort; its relation to fact was of no consequence. Even all postcards needed to have the censorÕs approval number (vise) printed on them before they could be sent through the mail. Only Coulon’s first card, issued the same day as censorship laws were decreed, could be published without scrutiny. Coulon realizing the trouble that censorship might bring was careful not to work under his own name, choosing the pseudonym Gérôme Coquandier, which appears on these cards.
Even though Coulon was theoretically presenting satire, his early cards still display a great deal of patriotism and optimism for he was as much in the dark as to what was truly happening at the battlefront as everyone else. No real news was forthcoming for the entire first month of the conflict, and little more of the truth followed afterwards. This can be seen on card 3, dated August 28, 1914, that shows Guignol fighting with the Belgian army. He laments the loss of Liege, criticizes the burning of Louvain, and praises King Albert I of Belgium whose bravery at the front becomes an inspiration to his troops. While these events are all real, it overlooks how badly the Belgian and French troops were overrun, and how the French army suffered their worst casualties of the War in the opening months. It must be remembered that the individual cards of this set were issued one at a time as events unfolded. There was no retrospect to be had that might reveal all the horrors that would be forthcoming. The basic formula of this card showing Guignol fighting with the soldiers of foreign armies would be repeated as a way of introducing issues related to other Allied nations.
By the time card 5, dated September 21, 1914, was issued; the initial romance surrounding the War was fading fast. This card portrays the destruction of the great Cathedral at Reims as being unprecedented and as a purposeful act. While there is still controversy over the manner in which it was damaged, this card is presented as a one sided rant in which Guignol throws every possible insult imaginable at the German monsters responsible for its desecration. This type of vitriol was very common on French postcards, and in this sense this card is similar to the countless other cards depicting atrocities. While the destruction at Reims was used extensively in the Allied propaganda war to sway public opinion in neutral nations, the outrage expressed on this card feels more personal if not unique.
It did not take long before the censors caught up with Coulon. After criticizing the government for sending troops with summer uniforms into winter campaigning while wasting taxes that could have paid for them, the 7th card of the series, dated November 2, 1914, was banned from publication. A few day later, Coulon issued a new unnumbered card that questions the punishments that might befall those who dare speak the truth about governmental incompetence, and he depicts Anastasie, symbol of censorship, attacking Gnafron’s letter with an oversized pair of scissors. Coulon also concludes that once the War ends he will take his revenge and publish banned card 7.
More postcards in this set might have been censored had not Coulon taken advantage of Guignol’s well known contradictory nature. By arguing both sides of the same point, thus confusing the true intentions of the card, controversial themes might be approached with impunity. While it may seem that this simple trick would easily be seen trough, anyone familiar with Guignol Theater might recognize this form of confused thinking as natural to it and overlook the subversive message. Even so, Coulon sometimes seems to go out of his way to dare the censors as on card 11 from July 11, 1915, that reveals the hypocrisy of statesmen that call for war but do not fight. In the middle of this letter there is a side message that exposes the author’s tendency to write things he ought not. This taunt also indirectly exposes his contempt for censorship, which fits in with Lyon’s reputation for being a hotbed of sedition.
The poetic way in which these cards are written can also make them difficult to decipher. It is difficult to know how much of this was a calculated ploy to disguise intent as opposed to style. This is especially evident on card 13, dated September 15, 1915, that relates conversation from an impromptu family gathering during an air raid. Even though there is nervous talk of canon and Zeppelins, the conversation remains casual as if nothing is out of the ordinary. Worry seems to be tempered by an unspoken acceptance of the new imposed lifestyle, which can be a form of resistance. By expressing important concerns of the day through common conversation they feel more real even when coming from puppets. While this informal setting may provide some humor as well as truth, it was also a way to stymie censors. The device also makes these cards more difficult to understand today when common ways of speaking are no longer so common.
On card 15, dated January 28, 1916, Gnafron gives us an update on the changes in Lyon, which he now describes as the tower of Babel. A long rundown is given of all the allies, colonial troops, and foreigners who have taken refuge there. While many French publishers depicted Black Senegalese soldiers, few showed fashionably dressed woman flirting with them to the extent shown here. Sexual innuendo could always be counted on to help make a sale, but inferences toward interracial couples always had to be tempered in some manner. While Coulon is willing to set up the situation, he adapts a common solution by showing the Black soldier to be wounded, which renders him harmless. This card goes on to describe the deplorable conditions that Madelon now finds herself working under, even being charged a penny to go pee at he exploitive job.
Coulon’s strategy of relying on the personal judgments of censors seems to have given most of the satire expressed through the mouth’s of puppets some leeway, but when he reproached the subject of the army being ill prepared for the coming winter censors struck again. This time it was card 27, dated October 25, 1916, but they left it in circulation only redacting a portion of the offending text. Instead of leaving a blank space, Coulon replaced it with a sarcastic apology claiming he had no right to reveal the deprivations faced by soldiers fighting for France that would force such editing. This paragraph opens and closes with a pair of scissors to leave no doubt that he is responding to the actions of the censors. This in itself was a bold and dangerous move for authorities did not like the public being made aware of the existence of censorship.
Though the amount of censorship applied to these cards seems light considering their controversial content, what we don’t see are Coulon’s efforts at self-censorship. Most publishers of the day did not follow set rules for they already knew what was expected of them. Rather than being coerced, most seem to have followed official guidelines willingly if not enthusiastically because they felt it was their patriotic duty to show unreserved support for the War. Those publishers who began to reassess their enthusiasm as the War dragged on had to be careful. They could abhor the destruction the conflict wrought as long as all blame was placed on the enemy. Peace could be wished for as long as it was represented in the form of inevitable victory. Coulon’s cards are remarkable for the amount of dissent expressed. Even if he self censored his work, these cards still give us much more insight into the concerns of ordinary people than found on most other patriotic postcards.
Some of the more critical cards in the set deal with home front issues of injustice that Coulon was more familiar with. Many of these were the inconvenient truths of a society that did not live up to the ideals set out in official propaganda, and certainly not found on most postcards. Here we find war profiteers and the discrepancies between those asked to sacrifice and the wealthy that continue to live high. On card 22, dated August 8, 1916, Gnafron and Madelon witness a family being thrown out of their home by a greedy landlord while their son is away fighting to protect the country. While this sort of outrage might be seen as being nothing more than the singular viewpoint of the author, the continuing publication of these cards throughout the War shows that these messages resonated with a substantial audience.
Even though Coulon was a sharp critic of his fellow Frenchmen, he consistently showed his distain for the enemy. When the Austrian emperor, Franz Joseph died on November 21,1916, card 28 was issued two days later. Here Gnafron writes of his dream in which the emperor is confronted by the opponents he executed and the soldiers that died for his political ambitions. There is no mercy to be granted before he is descended upon by demons. Gnafron awakes and wonders if the dream can be true. The audience knows the emperor has died, so maybe his damnation is real as well or at least really deserved.
A few serious attempts made to see if a negotiated end to the War could be arranged, but they did not go far since everyone thought they would win and could then dictate terms. It was difficult keeping overtures secret, though few ever learned the reasons for failure. On card 29, dated January 12, 1917, Guignol wonders what happened to the overtures for peace, and whether the United States will or can do anything to end the War. While these lofty concerns hover overhead, Guignol and his comrades must deal with the never ending problems of everyday life in the trenches that range from the uncomfortable realities of lice infestation to the possibility of sudden of death. While we are exposed to multiple characters within these narratives, we must realize that they all represent the author’s singular point of view. As Coulon grew weary of the War, our brave hero Guignol who was once prone to bravado now wishes for an end to the fighting.
A number of these cards deal with social issues that were compounded by the War. On card 35, dated June 12, 1915, Gnafron writes of the milliners, florists, and dressmakers of town whose request for an increase in their meager wages is ignored. This leads to strikes in which Madelon takes part. While some jobs that women take over are essential for the war effort, their contributions will not be recognized through pay. Things may look different in wartime, but they are essentially the same as before. While many women did indeed flock to cities to earn money at jobs previously closed to them, unequal pay was a universal standard and many worked with hazardous materials in dangerous conditions. This card only addresses the tip of the problems that women faced, which can also be a reflection of the great resentment that existed toward working women in France.
Card 39, dated February 15, 1918, is an amusing parody on the puppet theater. Guignol shows were not only put on to raise charitable funds, they would often visit troops, especially the wounded at hospitals to help raise morale or at least be a momentary distraction. On this card Guignol comments how the entertainment turned his own thoughts of his sad fate and looming death into laughter, and how much the soldiers envy the joy of the puppets. Our tendency to become engaged with these puppet characters can make us forget that the opinions and feelings expressed are really that of the author Coulon, and this card is a reminder of the multiple layers through which truth is filtered and distorted during wartime. The importance of these shows was officially recognized in Lyon when A Day of Guignol was declared in October 1916.
By 1917 the ongoing War was taking a severe toll on morale. The poor conditions French troops were forced to live under created feelings of neglect, and discontent began to spread rapidly through the ranks. French authorities placed stricter control on censorship out of fear that subversive ideas might spread. Letters and cards were carefully scrutinized, and any questionable comments were blocked out with ink. By May, when soldiers came to believe that their lives were being carelessly wasted they started to mutiny. In Russia, troops were already leaving the battlefront and just going home in numbers to large to control. In this dangerous environment it is odd that censors let pass card 40 in which Guignol converses with a fellow soldier over the significance of passing unarmed Russian troops. The clue is in its date, February 23, 1918, by which time Russian solders were not deserters but noncombatants and the threat of further mutiny by French soldiers had passed. There is still dangerous talk of the Bolsheviks helping to end the War but this argument is tempered with a warning from Guignol that this may cause harm to France. Germany would launch a major offensive on the Western Front the following month supported by troops withdrawn from Russia.
Efforts were made to quell the rebellion within French ranks by a change in leadership that brought an end to fruitless attacks while improving their miserable diet. While this adverted a complete disaster, the French army could no longer be considered reliable. This perilous situation was one of the best kept secrets of the War; so secret that not only Coulon but the censors examining his work had no idea of the true situation, so they had nothing to react to. There were however changes that could be felt if not understood. The French had always executed more soldiers for cowardice than in most other armies, but did Coulon notice an increase as the ringleaders of the mutiny were shot? On card 45, dated April 17, 1918, Guignol is present at a soldier’s execution and comments on how harshly the behavior of soldiers is judged by military authority. There is no clear denunciation for the censor to question but the mood is clear. Even Guignol, famous for doing what’s forbidden, only gets to question authority in an offhanded way. Could this itself be a comment on living under fear?
On card 52, dated September 5, 1918, Guignol with the help of the British and Americans are on the attack again. They are now aided by tanks, an innovative weapon that look like furious monsters escaped from some cavern in hell. He finds these terrible machines both scary and impressive as they move across all obstacles without effort. While many tanks are pictured here, they a presented in a vague manner, which is probably due to Coulon’s own lack of familiarity with these new weapons. Their presence on the battlefield cannot be overlooked because like the addition of the Americans, their real significance is that they add up to hope. There is now a noticeable change; all cards that follow will be less critical as they concentrate on telling us how badly things are going for the enemy. After four long years of fighting, nothing loomed larger than the possibility of peace.
Once the fighting on the Italian Front ends, Guignol returns to France for the last dance. Here on card 57, dated November 11, 1918, he is witness to the signing of the Armistice that ends the War. Here his comments go to all those who wanted to be the masters of the world that now have to submit to the world on this day. He laments the Kaiser did not find himself capable of meeting the fate he deserved and escaped it by running away. This card has an unusual somber quality to it. Is this a sign that the moment is perceived of sacred or is the author fearful of it being a dream from which he could be awakened? There is no rejoicing to be found here; this will be reserved for cards that follow.
The last card of the set dated June 28, 1919, takes place on the day the Treaty of Versailles officially ending the Great War was signed. While this was a momentous event, Guignol is not present among the statesmen and dignitaries. Instead we are presented with a more intimate gathering of friends. This of course was the formula for the entire series, turning momentous events and complex issues into something that the common man could directly relate to. Gnafron salutes his friend, the humble hero with a heart full of valor. Guignol in turn decries the calamity of the conflict and reminds us of those who have suffered. He calls for the end of bloodshed, horror, and misery forever. While embracing the idea of a war to end all wars seems a bit naive for an author that was so in tune with expressing hidden truths, it must be remembered that this motto was embraced by many. The War had simply become an overwhelming ordeal that had exhausted all of Europe. Few wanted to think of anything beyond its end. In any case, who after all these horrific experiences could possibly think of ever engaging in war again?
Sixty-five postcards were published over the entire course of the Great War; most in the form of letters plus five New Year’s Greetings. They may not provide the most accurate narrative of the conflict, but they do provide a rare if narrow insight to the way it was truly perceived. They are an affirmation of real feelings. This is also an important perspective through which the War’s history can be better understood. PeopleÕs actions are based upon what they know not the truth; so if we are to understand why they behaved a certain way during the course of the War, we must see reality through there perspective no matter what it is based on. Coulon gets wrapped up in a lot of familiar rhetoric and no doubt has some agendas of his own to promote, but there is true value to be found here. This is but one example of what can be discovered through postcards that are not always present in more conventional histories.
Jean Coulon illustrated other color postcards picturing the characters of the Guignol Theater during the War, but his postwar sets representing popular story lines like Carmem, La Boheme, and Romeo and Juliet lack the sharp satirical bite that he became known for. Guignol continues to be strongly associated with Lyon and appears on modern continental cards made for tourists. While Guignol was used to promote the war effort, efforts to transform him into a national heroic figure was never fully achieved. Part of his charm is his local identity, which becomes bland when made generic for a larger audience. The same can be said for his coarseness, which when watered down for a gentler audience dilutes the power of his personality. He could be valued as an important part of French folklore, but it was difficult for him to symbolize all of French culture let alone receive international status like the fate of Statue of Liberty. Many could easily embrace Lady Liberty because her message was simple and clear. Guignol was not easy to define; he sent mixed messages more like a trickster than a true hero. The War postcard set demonstrates that the mythic qualities of Guignol still had the potency to give voice to the voiceless. Authority rarely embraces such figures unless they can manipulate the myth attached to them to their liking. Guignol’s independence made him too dangerous to be fully embraced for any form of popularism that might threaten the official message is anathema to those trying to stay in control.
Many of the social issues tackled in Coulon’s War Series are unfortunately as pressing today as they were a hundred years ago. Perhaps society will always need Guignol or someone like him to continue playing this role.
REVIEW by Alan Petrulis
With a Weapon and a Grin:
France suffered enormous casualties in the opening moves of World War One, and it soon became apparent that their West African colonies would have to be tapped for all the manpower they could provide. Over 140,000 Black colonial troops would fight in France during the course of the War, most taking on the title of tirailleurs Sénégalais (Senegalese infantrymen). While they played a crucial part in the conflict, they are rarely mentioned in written histories except in passing. I would expect most authors tackling this subject to either give accounts of military campaigns or provide very detailed descriptions of weapons used and uniforms worn down to the placement of the last button. Both of these approaches have their merits, but Stephan Likosky has taken an entirely different route exploring the subject from the perspective of propaganda. This perspective is already hinted at in his very unusual title, With a Weapon and a Grin. While we automatically expect the propaganda of belligerent nations to express different attitudes, even when covering the same subject, French authorities were confronted with a more complex task of satisfying divergent needs. While some of the audience for French propaganda was to be found in Germany and neutral nations, most was aimed at their own citizens. The reasons behind this is largely what this book concerns itself with.
Propaganda does not work by trying to convince people to believe something new as much as reinforcing ideas already held. It often preys on the beliefs we compartmentalize or are ill defined because they conflict with one another. This can often be seen in matters concerning race where contradictions can be ignored and particular points expressed as needed. Many postcards from World War One used propaganda to reinforce a whole range of contradictory ideas so that both could be entertained at the same time. The countless cards that depicted fierce warriors raining merciless death and destruction down upon the enemy had to be countered with images depicting soldiers as decent men that were only longing to fit back into family life once victory was achieved. This same sort of dilemma arose when depicting the thousands of Black troops that suddenly arrived on the shores of France to support the war effort. French publishers had to show that their unfamiliar presence was of no threat to the civilian population while at the same time presenting the image of a powerful warrior that would help defeat the enemy. Propaganda largely made use of stereotypes to satisfy both points of view.
This book is organized into seven chapters, as Stephen puts it, “each with an overall focus on one ore more stereotypical images of the French black African soldier,” Topics covered include the raw recruit, heroic images of the brave and loyal fighter, sacrifices of the wounded warrior, the naive continence of the grand enfant, and promoting images of the semisavage and exotic cannibal to instill fear in the enemy. It ends with a look at the longer lasting legacies of these stereotypical portrayals. While most of the cards illustrated are French, examples of the harsh German reaction to Black soldiers being brought to fight in Europe are also shown. The introduction provides a decent perspective from which this topic can be approached, along with a good account of the problems that arise in vocabulary when dealing with African soldiers. I did however find that some of the smaller introductions that begin each chapter fell short on content. While it would be better if these were filled out, the real meat of the book is to be found in the 150 plus illustrations that follow. They are not only large, sharp and reproduced in good color, most captions are extensive giving us the bulk of the book’s narrative and clear insight into what we are looking at. This type of pairing is very effective in conveying understanding, a true necessity when discussing ideas transmitted through pictures. As it turns out, postcards are a perfect medium to approach this subject. They were an important part of popular culture at the time, and as such they well represent commonly held beliefs. They were also an important instrument in the propaganda war, and the many examples help provide a clear idea of how propaganda was employed.
While the cover leaves a lot to be desired, the graphics within the book are clean and simple, and actually embellish its presentation rather than distract. Despite its large number of illustrations, the layout manages them well providing for an easy read. Overall this is a beautiful volume that is much more than a picture book. While the contents may not be exhaustive, IÕm not sure any subject that deals with postcards can be. It does however provide us with a very rounded perspective and clear insights into a subject that has largely been ignored until now. Although this book seems oriented toward a niche audience of military history enthusiasts, its value extends much further. There are certainly facts to be learned that will extend anyoneÕs knowledge of the Great War and Black history, but the real focus of this book is in the way it exposes the mechanisms through which beliefs were manipulated and public perceptions shaped. History after all, is only important in so far that we can relate it to our own lives, and the lessons to be learned here are just as relevant today. This book is a good read for anyone, regardless of where their interests lie.
For those of you interested in a sampling of the story line with a few illustrations, Stephen Likosky was generous enough to submit a preliminary article on this subject to this blog back on April 26, 2009. See, With a Weapon and a Grin in the Blog Archives.