Jean Barbe, Architect of the Absurd*

« In my youth I thought of writing a satire on mankind! but now in my age I think I should write an apology for them. » — Horace

Cartoonist and illustrator André-François Barbe (1936-2014) was born in Nîmes, France.

After an abortive stint in the French air force, he spent a few years fiddling around in Air France’s employ. His earliest professional drawings saw print in the venerable Le Rire (1894-1971) in 1958. After a few years of tentative, but increasingly encouraging results, he finally made his decisive move in 1965, joining the shaky ranks of full-time cartoonists.

Fittingly, Barbe was an unabashedly chatty man in person… while his work scarcely required words.

While frequently satirical in subject, Barbe’s approach never stoops to easy mockery or gratuitous acerbity. Instead, one finds grace and lyrical elegance… now and then flavoured with a tangy venom chaser. In this finespun register, I’d place him in a class with the likes of Saul Steinberg, Jean-Jacques Sempé, Jean-Michel Folon, Jean-Claude Suares, Guillermo Mordillo, Shel Silverstein, Joaquín ‘Quino‘ Lavado and Maurice Henry.

A self-portrait of the bewhiskered (of course!) young artiste at his easel.
Remember how deep our television sets used to be?
This one anticipates a similar concept later mined by his Argentine contemporary, Guillermo Mordillo. To wit, check out co-admin ds’ Mordillo gallery… you’ll know just which cartoon I mean.
Like Gerard Hoffnung before him, Barbe was a connaisseur of classical music. He would frequently return to this theme.
M.C. Escher meets the bourgeois promeneurs!
He takes on the Army…
… and the Clergy…
… and the bourgeoisie.

By the early 1970s, Barbe was increasingly devoting his pen and his interest to erotic subjects, and that’s the work he’s most associated with. Though that material held greater commercial clout, the work remained flawlessly executed and formally explorative… at least at first. Then, I’d argue that it became a bit of a cul-de-sac. Personally, I’ve always found it a bit chilly in its execution, quite a liability for erotica. Your kilométrage may vary.

Speaking of distances, Barbe was always a bit of a routard, an adventurous traveller. Here’s one instance of particular interest:

In the 1980s, on the initiative of his brother Michel Barbe, a history and geography teacher in Marseille, he took part in a conference given by Haroun Tazieff on the subject of volcanism. Owing to the quality of his drawing skill, he was allowed to accompany, in 1982, an exploratory scientific journey to the volcanic region of the Djibouti Rift. This expedition, led by Lucy co-discoverer Maurice Taieb, enlisted 32 professors who explored the basalt flows in the Assal Lake depression.


*a handy description I’ve rifled from the ever-erudite Jacques Sternberg.

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