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THE art of the cartoonist was flourishing in the palaeolithic age, about fifty thousand years ago. In the caves of Dordogne, in Southern France, the early artist scraped and scratched his figures of reindeers and mammoths, and colored them in red, white and black. He was a magic worker, using his remarkable art to impress his less skilled brother. The caricaturist belongs to a much later period; but he, too, was in evidence in Greece during the days of Aristophanes, a century or two before the artistic genius of the Maya race carved and modelled their quaint, grotesque figures of men and animals. That the art of caricature is an ancient one in Mexico we have abundant evidence. The artist usually worked in clay, but he also made drawings with pointed obsidian knives or charcoal on stone. Representations of his art craft can be seen in many of the ancient codices. In Pa
dre Sahagun’s illustrations (the Florentine Codex) we find many whimsical and fantastic sketches, grim with sardonic humor. Except here and there, on rare occasions, the art of caricature which flourished in Europe during the Spanish Colonial period, was dormant in Mexico. In the Codex of San Juan Teotihuacan, which dates from the middle of the sixteenth century, we see the Indian artist caricaturing the portly Augustinian friars, and revealing with tragic earnestness the suffering of the poor natives whom the monks compelled to build their beautiful churches to the “Glory of God.”
But the art of satirical expression can only be developed when some degree of freedom obtains. Under Spanish rule and the rigid jurisdiction of the Inquisition no freedom of thought was possible. With the changed conditions brought about by the separation of New Spain from the mother country there was liberty enough—and even license—for the caricaturist, which he used with biting satire against the ever-changing political heroes. To-day, the political cartoonist in Mexico is a powerful factor in moulding public opinion against influential persons. Since the fall of Porfirio Diaz the daily and weekly journals have been enlivened by the cartoons of a brilliant group of young men—foremost and leader of them all is Ernesto Garcia Cabral, the fertile genius who has daily depicted and delineated every phase of Mexican life and politics.
Cabral, who is quite young, was born in the year 1891, in Huatusco, a picturesque village in the State of Veracruz. As a child of three or four years he amused himself by tracing figures on the ground and before the age of fourteen he delineated figures of animals and saints on the walls of the village church. At that time he also discovered his future artistic bent in making profile caricatures of his younger brothers and school-fellows. His school teacher, early recognizing the ability
of the boy in draughtsmanship, persuaded the “Jefe Politico” of the district to solicit a scholarship from Señor Don Teodoro Dehesa, the enlightened Governor of the State. Señor Dehesa, a patron of art, who frequently acted as a Maecenas to struggling artists, granted the young Ernesto the coveted bursary which entitled him to enter the San Carlos Academy in the Capital of the Republic. There he was able to improve his technique, but the scholarship did not make him independent. To live and continue his studies it was necessary for him to earn money. He therefore commenced to draw for the public, collaborating in the publication of a lithographed political paper called “La Tarantula.” In this paper, directed by Fortunato Herrerías, he dedicated himself exclusively to the art of caricature. At the end of six months he joined the staff of the short-lived comic weekly “Frivolidades” which soon had to stop publication for want of funds. The next important step in Cabral’s career was his collaboration with Mario Vitoria, in the well-known political weekly “Multicolor” and through the medium of this paper his drawings became known to a wider and more influential circle. “Multicolor” had great political influence during the three years it was published (1911-1914), and helped very powerfully towards the making and unmaking of the political idols of the hour.
It was during this period that the brilliant young artist came to the notice of President Madero, who decided to send him to Paris to continue his studies at the expense of the Mexican Government. Cabral settled in Paris in 1912 and pursued his studies at the free academies of Colorossi and the Grande Chaumiére. Cabral’s native land was soon afterwards passing through the agonies of revolution and the tragic death of Madero left the artist penniless, as the new Government stopped all the bursaries of Mexican students then studying under
official patronage in Europe. Deprived of all means of subsistence, Cabral, as he once told the present writer, was, for a time, actually starving. Some amelioration came to him as the result of winning a competition inaugurated by an official Academy of Painting at No. 80 Boulevard Montparnasse, the prize being free admission to the upper class of drawing from the nude. The competitors, who were fifteen in number, were required to make in five hours—one hour a night—a crayon drawing of a Greek statue. The starving artist’s success, ironically enough, was communicated by the Mexican Consul in Paris, to the Minister of Public Instruction and Fine Arts in Mexico, and the local press made Cabral the subject of flattering comment. Cabral was then able to continue his studies without expense, but was compelled at the same time to struggle gallantly for a pittance, by selling the productions of his pencil through the “Marchand de Tableaux”—and shortly afterwards he was taken on the staffs of “Le Rire” and “Bayonette.”
When the Great War broke out, Cabral was again in difficulties. Paris cared only for her own cartoonists, and it was then that he lived the bohemian life of the Latin Quarter—that centre of cardiac energy—described so graphically by Du Maurier and Murger, with the usual companionship of a sweet, pious and self-sacrificing blonde “Midinette” who shared the dark days of his misery. At that time, he has told us, he was in the habit of casting lots with his bohemian companions, to see who would procure sufficient funds for the satisfying of their ravenous stomachs—a motley lot of comrades in adversity, including would-be painters, musicians, poets and journalists. Garcia Cabral had, on more than one occasion, the experience of resorting to extraordinary stratagems to obtain sufficient food for their wants.
During 1918, when the Constitutional Government of Mexico was presided over by Don Venustiano Carranza, there was residing in Paris as the special envoy of the President, Lic. Isidoro Fabela, and under Sr. Fabela’s generous protection Cabral was appointed an Attaché in the Mexican Legation, his duties being the pleasant task of illustrating a book of narratives which Señor Fabela was intending to publish. Shortly afterwards, he accompanied Señor Fabela on his official missions to Madrid and Buenos Ayres and in the Argentine capital they stayed fifteen months. There, in the interest of a Mexican national propaganda, Cabral contributed his cartoons to the principal newspapers and reviews, achieving a very considerable reputation in the Argentine. In the beginning of 1919, after an exile of seven years, Cabral returned to his native land and his work immediately began to appear in the weekly “Revista de Revistas” and in the influential daily newspaper “Excelsior.” Since that time his career has been one of unbroken success and of extraordinary popularity.
Cabral’s amazing drawings are worthy of taking rank with those of the most distinguished foreign cartoonists. He can, with equal facility, produce the most humorous of cartoons or the most satirical of caricatures. In his cartoons of representative people, he seems to extract by critical penetration—sympathetically—the quintessential expression of his subject. He is always an artist, a consummate designer and a psychological observer who analytically peers into the minds of men and lays bare their personalities. His art is versatile. In line, he excels as no other Mexican artist; but he is also a master of chiaroscuro, and as an illustrator his understanding of the massing of color is extraordinary.
During the past three or four years, Cabral must have produced several thousand cartoons and caricatures. His cartoons of representative people in Mexico have
been drawn mostly from life, each sketched rapidly and surely in a little over half an hour. His political, social and topical cartoons form a kaleidoscopic history of contemporary Mexico. A great political question, such as the official American recognition of President Obregon’s Government, finds Cabral sympathetically interpreting the international aspirations of the Mexican people. The danger of Bolshevism in the State of Veracruz becomes a subject for many convincing cartoons, of more influence than dozens of leading articles. Mexico City, due to an exceptional drought, is called upon to economize in its use of electric energy and daylight-saving is officially established for a time. Cabral, during the crisis, daily illustrates the necessity. He wages war upon incompetent medical men, portrays the risk the pedestrian takes on the crowded streets of the Capital, the evil effects of unlawful strikes, and so on;—every phase in the everchanging life of the Capital is eloquently depicted. In some of his cartoons of persons he subordinates caricature in favor of true portraiture, and in others, the kindly sympathetic personality of the artist changes rapidly into the satirist and cynical student of life with an ineradicable memory of its shams and miseries.
For the selection of the cartoons reproduced in this book the writer is responsible; it does not profess to represent Cabral’s best work, and he himself would probably have chosen quite differently from the thousands he has done. The cartoons have suffered by reduction and reproduction, as the majority of them have been copied direct from the “Excelsior.” Nos. I., XVII-XXIV and XXV, were reproduced from the original drawings.
The writer’s apology for a selection that may not represent the best of the artist’s work is due to the cartoonist, as those reproduced have been selected on account of their personal appeal to the friends for whom
this limited edition is intended. Cabral hopes, at an early date, to publish a representative collection of his work—which all lovers of his art will joyfully welcome.
A critical study of the Mexican cartoonist’s genius will some day be attempted. This little book does not pretend to be anything more than an appreciation by an admirer, who lacks the critical and artistic knowledge to determine Cabral’s true place among cartoonists in Mexico and abroad.
G. R. G. CONWAY.