September 24, 2012
Joseph Hémard: The Art of Taxation
Yale Law Library New Exhibit: The Comic Art of Joseph Hémard:
It would take a genius to illustrate one of the most boring books imaginable, a code of tax laws, and create a comic tour-de-force. That genius was Joseph Hémard (1880-1961), who in his lifetime was probably France's most prolific book illustrator. His illustrations are the focus of the latest exhibit in the Yale Law Library, And then I drew for books: The Comic Art of Joseph Hémard.
The exhibit, on display until December 15, is curated by Farley P. Katz and Michael Widener. Katz, a tax attorney from San Antonio, has built one of the world's finest collections of Hémard's works. Widener is the Rare Book Librarian at the Lillian Goldman Law Library.
Hémard's illustrations have a distinctly French character, usually comic, and often mildly erotic. Many of his illustrations were executed in pochoir, a hand stenciling process producing intense, gorgeous colors still vibrant after three-quarters of a century.
The exhibit showcases eight of the 183 illustrations in Hémard's Tax Code, donated to the Yale Law Library by Katz, along with two of the other three law books on display from the library's Rare Book Collection.
(Hat Tip: Charlotte Crane.)
Tax codes are notoriously dull reading. They are devoid of interest to anyone but professionals trained in the arcane language of the tax laws who, even then, never actually consult them except when required by a specific task at hand. The idea of a lengthy, commercially published tax code, profusely illustrated with humorous cartoon-like drawings full of puns and whimsy, with illustrations beautifully hand printed in color, seems almost unimaginable. But such an incredible book exists! Add to this the facts that the book was printed in occupied Paris near the end of World War II and that it contains numerous risqué and decidedly antiauthoritarian images, and one begins to appreciate how truly fantastic this book is.
In a brief preface to the Code, Hémard observed that, given “the complexity of the tax system,”22 it is understandable that some must rely on qualified persons to comply with their tax obligations, and that others, although essentially blind to the tax laws, choose to handle their tax obligations themselves, “strengthened by the illusion that a dark night does not offer more perfidious obstacles to the blind man than to the perceptive one.” He then expressed his hope—which must be taken as purely artistic in context—that “the especially arid matters covered by the general Code of direct taxes would receive some useful light through the art of the illustrator.” Hémard brilliantly achieved his goal; his illustrations bring the sterile world of the tax code to a vibrant and wonderful life, filled with humor and populated with peasants and shopkeepers, children and relatives, lovers and crooks, wealthy businessmen and vagabonds, all being squeezed for their last sous by the relentless and merciless tax collector.
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