Although Jossot is almost forgotten by public at large, his drawings are still published in today’s newspapers. During the commemorations of separation between State and Church, in 2005, Le Monde borrowed for example a cartoon from L’Assiette au beurre titled “Dressage !”, which was about education. (1) Lot of leftists and extremes leftists’ newspapers were pleased to find this satirical illustrated magazine where Jossot proved to be a great assailant of policemen, militaries and priests. The originality of his featuring and the virulence of his wit are still appreciated and used, but most don’t know any more who was the drawer.
Jossot was born the 16 april 1866, in a middle class family and he was twenty when his firsts sketches were published in the press of Dijon (a town between Paris and Lyon). At this time his sketches’ style and humour were very close to the tastes of the day. Jossot learnt in free studios and became very fond of Brittany. While parodying symbolist masters, he created in 1894 a very strange design marrying grotesque deformation with decorative distortions. Outlines became thicker and captions shorter and very sharp so that, from 1897 to the end of his life, the drawer kept an unwavering style where fatty and nervous rings seems to choke the vivacity of flatly colours. This aesthetic is closely linked with Nabis drawings and paintings, with the main figures of Modern Style, with medieval illuminations and frescos, Japanese’s prints and french cartoonists, like Caran d’Ache, Morriss, or Louis Doës. Jossot asserted himself as one of the most famous caricaturist of his time after he published three albums titled Artistes et bourgeois (1894), Mince de trognes (1896), Femelles ! (1901) and more than eighteen issue of L’Assiette au beurre. Some fifty years later, people still remembered his huge caricatural poster for Saupiquet’s sardines (printed in 1897).
Revolt against “bourgeois”, nearly transformed in anarchic convictions, was the leaven of avant-garde aesthetic for Jossot as well as for lot of artists in his time. He explained in a paper that he found the ground of his vocation in an oppressive familial milieu. His mother died when he was three years old, and the kid was under the yoke of his stepmother and supported authoritarianism from a father who intended him for the navy. He was a young boy of nineteen, making his military service as reservist officer, near Nevers, when Marie-Jeanne Duriaud, a linen maid engaged by his parents, gave birth to Irma. Defying familial pressures, Jossot had to wait the death of his father in 1898 to get married.
As he exclusively practiced caricature, his view of realities became darker and darker, as long as his revolt changed into misanthropy and depression.
This tendency increased in 1896 when meningitis carried his daughter off. His first trip in Tunisia happened just after this tragic event. Going on with his career of poster designer and caricaturist, yet he disowned this art as “an outlet of Hatred” (2) and devote himself to painting. During his second journey in Tunisia (November 1904 to april 1905) he stayed in Gafsa, Gabès, Tunis and Hammamet and started to write a story when he came back in France. Titled Viande de borgeois, the book mixed up literary skits and caricatures and we can read the deep helplessness plumbing his author :
« Oh ! The durty bogs, the dreadful conks, the abominable mugs !... Everywhere I see rheumy-eyed blinking or ferocious glances, everywhere I hear brutish jaws chattering, everywhere I see muzzles trickling, snouts dribbling, hooters snorting, heads of boar grinning. Where to flee, where can I crouch down in order not to see any more theses horrific deformations, theses monstrous ugliness ? Now, gnomes from Goya, devils from Callot, larvae from Odilon Redon, seem to me far under the reality. Where to flee ? Nowhere since I meet everywhere humane beasts, since they pullulate, swarm and multiply. It’s really frightening this everlasting nightmare haunt by terrific faces, incredible chumps. »(3)
His very whimsical story is about an anarchist group loosing inconsequently a bomb in Tunisia : it’s a way to mock anarchists, to denounce abuses of colonisation and to describe an Orient made of dreams.
After a vast exhibition organized in 1908 by the « Club Slavia » in Austria, Bohemia and Moravia, where his art was the cause of scandal, Jossot came back in Tunisia and stayed for the winter in Gafsa. He exhibited his orientalist works at the Salon d’Automne of 1909 and passed the winter in Algeria, at Bou-Saâda. Back in april 1910, he exhibited four canvas at the Salon des Indépendants. In November 1910, he had decided to clear of in Tunisia. The caricatural paintings he showed at the Salon des Indépendants and Salon des Humoristes in 1911, seem to adapt cartoon to the dignity of the great genre. Jossot followed therein ideas he stood up for in his first articles. In september, he sold his furniture and left France definitively. The Salon Tunisien reserved him a big room in 1912, where he presented caricatures and landscapes paintings from Brittany and Tunisia.
Jossot’s orientalist work is almost unknown because it’s still scattered in privates collections. Theses paintings seem to be rather pale comparing to the caricatures and theoretical vindictive assertions from their author. With their sweep features, inks and watercolours make an exception and reawake a wiser ring. Although he carefully deserted worldliness able to give him social acknowledgement, Jossot became a respectable and appreciated artist between the two wars. Today, Tunisian people remember more the character than his art. Jossot shocked colonial society and intrigued natives when he announced publicly his conversion to Islam (February 1913). The fact wasn’t rare, but still original at this time, and the way it was staged is rather unique. We must say that he began by returning to his first religion, Catholicism, in order to reinforce the symbolic impact of his abjuration. Arabian version of Ma Conversion and newspapers debates expounded the reasons of this religious engagement. It was not the first conversion of the renegade : in France, he already was interested by Allen Kardec occultism, by theosophism, etc.
Jossot stopped all his artistic activities up to 1921, but his satiric verve spread in spicy chronicles distilled in Tunisian socialist and independantist newspapers. In 1923 he followed an initiation to Sufism with the sheikh Ahmad al’Alawî and published a booklet, titled Le Sentier d’Allah, where he relate his experience. From 1927, his exaltation fell down : he dressed back with European clothes and didn’t considered any more the sheikh as his master. Few years later, he published an other booklet titled Le Fœtus récalcitrant. He organised several individual expositions (1928, 1941, 1942) and showed again his paintings at the Salon Tunisien (1924, 1925, 1928) the Salon des Artistes Tunisiens (1929, 1931-1933), l’Essor (Dijon, 1928), and at two Expositions Artistiques de l'Afrique Française (1935, 1947). Devaluations consecutive to the two world wars, whittled down his independence assumed up to then by a consistent heritage and Jossot had to sell again his talent, notably to the anarchist revue Maintenant. At 81 years, he achieved the writing of his memoirs, Goutte à goutte, where he imagine “the hole terminus” with marked atheism. He was buried in “forgotten people cemetery”, in Dermech, near Sidi-bou-Saïd, on 7 April 1951.
(1) Le Monde, 2 décembre 2005, p. 25.
(2) Lettre à Jehan Rictus, s. d., [16-25 juin 1904].
(3) JOSSOT (Gustave-Henri), Viande de « Borgeois », illustré par Jossot, Paris, L. Michaud, pp. 18-19.
Copyright © Henri Viltard, janv. 2008
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