Daumier’s Painting Points At the Lost Ideal of a Free Communication Between Press and the Readers


Honore Daumier, “The Beer Drinkers”, 1855 – 1860

The middle of 19th century in France was hard but amazing time of belief in political progress. Many outstanding cultural figures – writers, poets, painters and humanistic scientists were dedicating their creative attention to real life – to the destiny of their country understood as a unity of people regardless of their social status and personal wealth. Daumier was one of them – “geniuses in the mud” who found inspiration and courage to leave the ivory tower and bring their talents and spiritual sensitivity to the life of the community.

Traditional concept of free press as free from governmental supervision was outdated already then and hasn’t been elaborated much since. The understanding of free press can be much less connected with the question of governmental censorship and “regulation”, than with financial conformism of people who are hired to write for newspapers and magazines, and with the intellectually infantilized reading public when people just want to see in the press the reflection of their views instead of being open to the process of creative thinking and the dialogue with the texts.

Today, journalists and pundits are not free not because of “government” but because their “success” and careers are more important for them than the factual truth and their professional integrity. On the other hand, readers are transformed into consumers of press, who are under the despotic power of their feelings and ready-made ideas. In Daumier’s times intellectuals were much freer from the desire to be as close as possible to those on the top of social hierarchy, as it is the case today.

The two men we see in the painting represent, it seems, two phases of perception of information – reading and thinking (about it). Today in pop-press and mass media this difference is lost. Writer in advance imitates his readers’ ideas and tastes or trying to seduce readers into his point of view using manipulative rhetoric. To be liked by the majority is the name of the game, not to communicate the subjective truth. It makes the idea of writer as “being free” a joke of the jack or the jug. The writer cannot afford not to imitate reader’s pop-feelings or not to try to impose his ideas on readers by the logic of (irrational) seduction. There is no difference between reading and thinking. There is no room for readers’ reflection about what they are reading or thinking about. Today the very idea of free press is destroyed not politically, but on psychological level.

The highest point of free press is a liberated reader – who is not only reading (the aspect of public communication personified by the man on the left), but is also able to think (the aspect personified by the man on the right). Taken together the beer drinkers (who haven’t dived into their beer yet – who are capable of postponing the pleasure) represent real reader – the goal of a free press. The light on the face of the man on the right is the brightest spot inside the painting. The reading man’s face is dimmer – the goal of a free press is not to make people buy newspaper to surf on printed waves. In this period in France – boiling political process as a part of history’s openness to future needed really independent and creative readers. The goal of the press was to stimulate this creative independence, not, like today, make people consumers of written or pronounced phrases (give them a chance to enjoy phraseology and have fun).

Daumier as a painter prefers dark colors and uncertain visibility of the human figures and faces – he, with his critical skepticism about human spiritual and intellectual potentials, as if wasn’t sure where Europe morally can and will go. In his drawings and sculptures the moments of caricature clearness were that of projection of his sometimes misanthropic sarcasm. The general darkness and uncertainty of human features in Daumier’s paintings is an equivalent of his disdain for the human condition that is clearly expressed in his drawings – the both are aesthetic strategies of keeping distance from his contemporaries (in spite of all his care about them). “The Beer Drinkers” is Daumier’s rare painting where darkness is retreating to the background, and the uncertainty is corrected by a quiet and joyful concentration of the painter on what he considered as a point of hope – the human creative intelligence applied to the reality of human life in a context of a whole society. Lighting of the pipe (the little sun of this painting) is a symbol of freedom of the receiver of information from the suggestions of the communicator – the ability to think for ourselves.