Maurice Henry: Make Way for Surrealism

« The man who cannot visualize a horse galloping on a tomato is an idiot. » ― André Breton

What is one to do, in a mere blog post, with a polymorphous artist such as Maurice Henry (1907-1984)?

Here’s a handy bit of compressed biography, from his Lambiek page:

Henry was a French painter, poet, filmmaker, as well as a cartoonist. Between 1930 until his death, he published over 25,000 cartoons in 150 newspapers and a dozen books. His cartoons were generally surrealistic and satirical.

In 1926, he co-founded the magazine Le Grand Jeu with René Daumal, Roger Gilbert-Lecomte and Roger Vaillard, with whom he formed the “Phrères simplistes” collective. Henry provided poems, texts and drawings, while also making his debut as a journalist in Le Petit Journal.

He left Le Grand Jeu in 1933 to join André Breton’s group of Surrealists and their magazine Surréalisme au service de la Révolution. He also worked with the artist and photographer Artür Harfaux on the screenplay of twenty films, including ones starring the comic characters ‘Les Pieds Nickelés’ and ‘Bibi Fricotin’. Maurice Henry spent the final years of his life making paintings, sculptures and collages. He passed away in Milan, Lombardy, in 1984.

The answer? My default solution, which is to focus on some small parcel of the much greater whole. A number of Henry’s works bear revisiting (for instance, Les métamorphoses du vide [1955], a truly groundbreaking picture book about the world of dreams; À bout portant [1958], a collection of literary portraits; or Les 32 positions de l’androgyne [1961, also issued in the US in 1963], a chapbook of… gender recombinations) and deserve a turn in the spotlight.

To quote co-anthologists Jacques Sternberg and/or Michael Caen in their indispensable Les chefs-d’oeuvre du dessin d’humour (1968, Éditions Planète, Louis Pauwels, director):

Surrealism — he was part of the group before 1930 — left its mark on him and it’s because he was already well-cultured as he launched his career that he was among the first, in the desert that was the publishing world of the 1930s, to attempt unusual drawings calling upon often startling ingredients, such as poetry, black humour, the fantastic and the absurd. He caused no less of a surprise by doing away with captions, at a time when bawdy jabbering was the fashion all over. In short, Maurice Henry was indisputably a pioneer of that grey and stinging brand of humour that would explode like an H-bomb some fifteen years later.

A lovely bit of conceptual humour from 1938. A rare one bearing a caption, but the joke called for it. At this early stage, you won’t be wrong to point out a certain stylistic debt (it’s the roundness and simplicity of line!) to his contemporary and compatriot Jean Effel. Henry was indeed a fan. Do check out my co-admin ds’ fine post spotlighting the good Monsieur Effel.
An example of what enlightened creators such as Henry were fighting for: making room for cartoons that weren’t just about the cheap chuckles. Consider, for instance, the existential plight of the Minotoreador . Published in K. Revue de la poésie no. 3 (“De l’humour à la terreur”, May 1949).
The Military, Government, Constabulary and Clergy were favourite targets, naturally. When it was (barely) tolerated. It helped to be ambiguous, even if one wasn’t ambivalent (1951).
Here’s one for the clergy; though mocking, it’s hardly what you’d call hostile. From the first issue of epochal surrealist magazine Bizarre (1955-1968).
Yes, it’s Card Sharp Jesus entertaining, confounding (and possibly fleecing) his disciples. Note the ace up his right sleeve (1941).
Walking on water was clearly just the beginning (1948).
Henry’s Jesus seems like a swell fellow, really. A bit on the roguish side, which is fine by me (1958).
See? A case of a joke’s that’s more than a half-century old still finding echoes in the present day. Cover from The Darkness‘ prophetic 2019 album, Easter Is Cancelled.
That soldier’s scared yet dismayed expression brings to mind Futurama’s hapless Philip J. Fry.
That’s one relaxed elephant.
Another illusion shattered.


The little hand wave at the end really makes this one.
The artist in 1935, photographed by his friend and frequent co-conspirator Arthur Harfaux.


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