Turpitudes Sociales Occupies the Legion of Honor

One of the most remarkable moments in Pissarro’s People (on view at the Legion of Honor through January 22, 2012) comes toward the end of the exhibition in the form of an album of pen and ink drawings entitled Turpitudes sociales (“social turpitude,” or disgraces).

Title page

Turpitudes sociales, 1889–1890. Thirty pen and brown ink over graphite drawings on paper pasted in an album. Album: 12 1/4 x 9 1/2 in. (31 x 24 cm). Collection of Jean Bonna, Geneva. Photo by Patrick Goetelen, Geneva, courtesy of Jean Bonna.

The toxicity of the imagery–scenes of suicide, starvation, urban poverty, drunkenness, street crime and violent insurrection–is truly shocking, especially coming from an artist not known for such explicitly political content.

"For Next to Nothing," from Turpitudes sociales, 1889–1890. Thirty pen and brown ink over graphite drawings on paper pasted in an album. Album: 12 1/4 x 9 1/2 in. (31 x 24 cm). Collection of Jean Bonna, Geneva. Photo by Patrick Goetelen, Geneva, courtesy of Jean Bonna.

Camille Pissarro never meant for the album to be exhibited or published, as it was conceived as a gift to his two English nieces. It now resides in a private collection in Switzerland, and has never been shown in a major Pissarro exhibition–until now.

Interesting comparisons can be made between France of the late 19th century and the United States today. Not yet recovered from the disastrous Franco-Prussian War, France’s financial sector was rocked by a major bank failure and stock market crash. Pissarro, like most of his artist colleagues, collectors and dealers, was affected by the recession. As an anarchist, he saw the many hardships resulting from the economic downturn as evidence of the failure of the government and the capitalist society that it promoted, precepts notably in line with the current Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement.

Because Turpitudes sociales is a book with its binding intact, only a single page can be displayed.

Turpitude binding

Front and back covers of Turpitudes sociales, 1889–1890, designed by Pissarro's son Lucien. Album: 12 1/4 x 9 1/2 in. (31 x 24 cm). Collection of Jean Bonna, Geneva. Photos by Patrick Goetelen, Geneva, courtesy of Jean Bonna.

The selected drawing on view, entitled Capital, depicts a banker clutching a moneybag surrounded by a mob of poor Parisians with outstretched hands. Its text, inscribed on the facing page, derives from the anarchist journal La Révolte:

“It is the War of the dispossessed against their dispossessors, the war of the hungry against the fat, the war of the poor against the rich, the war of life against death.”

"Capital," from Turpitudes sociales, 1889–1890. Thirty pen and brown ink over graphite drawings on paper pasted in an album. Album: 12 1/4 x 9 1/2 in. (31 x 24 cm). Collection of Jean Bonna, Geneva. Photo by Patrick Goetelen, Geneva, courtesy of Jean Bonna.

More than 120 years later, this provocative drawing’s resonance is uncanny.

The album is surrounded by a complementary group of works on paper specially selected from the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts. The installation includes a wall devoted to a grid of cover illustrations from the newspaper La Feuille (“the sheet”), one of many French anarchist journals that appeared during the late 1880s and 1890s.

Théophile Alexandre Steinlen (Swiss, active in France, 1859–1923). En Grève (On Strike), cover for La Feuille, no. 18 (20 October 1898), 1898. Gillotage. A047474.

Théophile Alexandre Steinlen (Swiss, active in France, 1859–1923). Association des malfaiteurs (Association of Wrongdoers), cover for La Feuille, no. 3 (27 November 1897), 1897. Gillotage. A047362

Although these have been in the Achenbach’s collection for many years, this is the first time they have ever been exhibited. We are fortunate that the great depth of our 19th-century holdings allows us to set the stage so well for Pissarro’s powerful Turpitudes sociales.

Pissarro's People will be on view at the Legion of Honor through January 22, 2012.