Albert Robida: De la satire à l'anticipation | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

Albert Robida: De la satire à l'anticipation

Albert Robida: De la satire à l'anticipation
by Claire Barel-Moisan and Matthieu Letourneux, Editors

Les Impressions Nouvelles, Brussels, 2022
360 pp., illus. b/w, 64 col. Paper, 28€
ISBN : 978-2-87449-920-3.

Reviewed by: 
Jan Baetens
April 2022

Just as all we know about ancient Rome comes from Hollywood, much of our knowledge of the times ahead has come from press and book drawings. What would Wells’ The War of the Worlds be without the illustrations of Warwick Goble (1898) or those of the Brazilian artist Henrique Alvim Corrêa (1906)? Rendering aliens and other never-seen beings, but also visually interpreting new forms of technology as well as new forms of behavior and social interaction, is of course not the exclusive privilege of the illustrator, but her or his role remains key even in our age of technologically extended reality. Science-fiction or, more generally speaking, anticipation cries out for visual and other accompaniment, and drawings are among the most supple and efficient ways of addressing the readers’ need to have more than just a glimpse of what is often difficult to image.

Since science-fiction has taken since many decades a decidedly dystopian turn, we may have the impression that the dominating tone of these images is horrifying and gore, perfectly in line with the pessimistic undercurrents of modern anticipation where the worst is always still to come. But there are other traditions, such as the didactic and humanist (also richly illustrated) narratives of Jules Verne or the more ironic and critical tone of a writer and illustrator, such as Albert Robida (1848-1926). His impressive and extensive work for the satirical press is now presented in a book that offers the ideal combination of the best of two worlds. Carefully edited by a specialist of the 19th century novel and the relationships between art and science in the same period (Barel-Moisan) and the leading scholar in the field of popular culture studies in France (Letourneux), this book is at the same time an impressive overview of new scholarly research, with some 20 in-depth articles on Albert Robida, and a no less impressive anthology, extensively and lavishly illustrated, of his work. And since this is not always the case in French publications, it is a pleasure to stress the presence and quality of the index, which greatly enhances the use value of this study.

The biographical data are relatively simple. Robida studied to become a notary but rapidly developed a strong interest in caricature, which eventually led to him to found his own magazine, La Caricature, in 1880, which he edited for 12 years. His caricatures, but also his illustrations for tourist guides, works of popular history, and literary classics, were extremely influential and innovative, not only in the newspapers and magazines, which made much room for humor and satire before and during the Belle Époque years, but also and above all in his three self-illustrated futuristic novels, Le Vingtième Siècle (“The Twentieth Century”, 1883), La Guerre au vingtième siècle (“The War in the Twentieth Century, 1887), and Le Vingtième siècle. La vie électrique («The Twentieth Century. Electronic Life», 1890). Unlike what happened for Verne, who has always remained an all-time classic, Robida’s fame rapidly waned after the First World War, but there has been a recent and strong revival of his work, with a particularly positive appreciation of the very original linking of futurism and social satire –a dimension clearly missing in the work by Jules Verne.

Robida’s creative and social environment is not that of literature, but that of the press. Trained as a press satirist, he managed to become a real visual journalist and a smart as well as humoristic social observer. His take on the future was not only that of the reporter who tried to imagine the future developments of new inventions, as seen for instance in his “téléphonoscope”, a flat-screen television display for the news of the day and other actualities (including teleconferences). Robida also used his futuristic speculations to poke fun at contemporary situations or to criticize the novelties of the day. Like in most other 19th Century French satirical publications, Robida endlessly targeted, but always with great originality and sharpness, the traditional themes of this type of publications: the new transportation systems, the place of women in society, the triumph of entertainment culture, for instance. Yet Robida’s futurism is in many cases really pioneering, as for example in his revolutionary work on air-borne travel and tourism, but also on air-borne warfare, a particularly striking feature in the golden age of railroad technology and infrastructure.

The contributions of this book help focus on the diversity of Robida’s work. They follow of course the current emphasis on the artist’s futuristic texts and images, while also tackling less studied aspects, such as the properly journalistic dimension of Robida’s production and its sometimes quite explicit political aims and concerns. In addition, the book also pays great attention to what makes Robida so interesting for visual studies. First of all, his place in the history of 19th Century illustrations –a field whose extreme creativity will be temporarily suspended by the arrival of photography, initially much less inspired than the press drawings. Second, the possibility to ask new questions in the context of media archeology, more precisely concerning the link between new media , including not yet existing ones, and new forms of experience, both positive and negative, but also in the context of media manipulation versus appropriation, all themes explicitly addressed by Robida in a sometimes humoristic, sometimes satirical style that makes his work a decisive reference in the building and development of our contemporary technological imagination.