Drawings for peace, the role of Geneva

Geneva is said to be the cradle of comics thanks to Rodolphe Töpffer who was the first to put words on an illustrative sequence in the 1830s. Geneva has remained a vivid breeding ground for cartoons since then. (Credit: Patrick Chappatte)

At a time when the planet is shrinking, when danger has become globalised and democracy is questioned just about everywhere, political cartoons seem to play an even more important role. They are amusing but some of their authors sometimes face death penalty for their provocative tone. Geneva is at the centre of this fight for freedom of expression and for a good reason: the inventor of comics was born in Geneva and his flame is still very much alive.

Yes, the Swiss, and the people of Geneva in particular, are not only the champions of democracy. You might also be surprised to hear that they are also quite funny. Calvin's city is even the cradle of comic books. Indeed, it is said that Rodolphe Töpffer invented the form between 1827 and 1833 with his stories in prints. The Swiss painter and journalist understood the impact of images to criticise society and ridicule it. "The image has a somewhat magical side: attack by means of graphic satire affects the person," explains Philippe Kaenel, professor of art history at the University of Lausanne and author of La caricature en Suisse (PPUR, 2018).

Töpffer, a pioneer from Geneva. "Töpffer pioneered the genre, his work was a laboratory," confirmed Zep at the opening of the exhibition, The comic strip, a Geneva invention? last November. The comic artist and creator of the bestselling Titeuf series discovered him at the age of 20 and admits that it is difficult to escape his influence for a cartoonist living in Geneva.

"Töpffer has been an ideal model and a reference point for cartoonists over the last 30 years with the return of black and white albums worn by a generation that claims art comics as a legitimate genre," adds Kaenel.

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Drawing from the manuscript « Voyage pittoresque» by R. Töpffer in 1827. The canton of Geneva appears at the centre of a caricatured world. (Credit : Bibliothèque de Genève, Exposition « La bande dessinée une invention genevoise ? »)

Although Töpffer was a conservative and took a hard line on the rioters who threatened neighbouring monarchies in the pamphlets he wrote for Le Courrier de Genève, he also came from a city that had made its revolution in 1782, before France, and where public debate was very intense.

"Freedom of expression and federalism encouraged the proliferation of the satirical press in the 19th century: a Swiss anomaly in the European history of the 1830 and 1848 revolutions," Kaenel explains.

Since then, Switzerland remains the country with the most important press organizations’ ratio in the world compared to its population.

The Töpfferian heritage. Of course press cartoons did not exist as such at the time. Political satire was a rare exercise but the Töpfferian heritage is a form of humour based on burlesque, incongruity, and sometimes absurdity. Its flame remains alive and there is indeed a Geneva breeding ground for comic strips and press cartoons, two universes which cohabit in "a kinship never totally assumed, a bit like cousins from first-generation families with their own associations, their own interests, but both take part in this great wealth of talent and artists in a very small area with a very small population," explains Patrick Chappatte, press cartoonist for Le Temps or the Boston Globe, among others. Indeed, political cartoonists are doing more than well in French-speaking Switzerland between Mix and Remix or Burki, which have now disappeared, but also Barrigues, Herman, Benedict, the new artists of the satirical newspaper Vigousse or the recent application La Torche 2.0 which develops press cartoons on smartphones.

Press cartoons and democracy. Chappatte recalls that the press cartoons developed hand in hand with press freedom and democracy. Today we cannot imagine the front page of our newspapers without them.

"As luck would have it, today we are in a period where press cartoons are heckled and democracy is being questioned everywhere. We are living in a paradoxical era where we can say absolutely everything and send each other the worst things on social networks, and at the same time we bear a cautious attitude in the traditional media, companies under economic pressure, and exercise great caution in crisis management. On the one hand a precautionary principle is applied to humour and opinion, and on the other hand the real reactionaries are completely unleashed on social networks.”

The filtering of the media, the real professional entities, is what is most damaging to democracy and freedom of expression, according to the cartoonist who had to stop drawing for The New York Times when it decided to no longer publish daily political cartoons in its international edition in June 2019. “They took the easiest path in order to not have problems with political cartoons in the future… Did we just invent preventive censorship ? This, in the end, is about democracy,”  reacted Chappatte in his Ted talk, “A free world needs satire”.

Cartoons for peace. Chappatte is the president of the Freedom Cartoonists Foundation. Renamed last October, the Geneva-based Cartooning for Peace Foundation was created in 2010 at the initiative of Kofi Annan, then UN secretary general and Nobel Peace Prize winner, and echoing the mission of its Parisian sister association directed by Jean Plantu, cartoonist for Le Monde. Their creation followed the the controversy over a series of 12 drawings, The faces of Muhammad, in the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten which triggered deadly riots. Every two years, with the support of the city of Geneva, the Freedom Cartoonists Foundation rewards a cartoonist for his courage and his role in promoting freedom of expression and human rights in particularly difficult circumstances. The massacre of Charlie Hebdo's journalists and cartoonists that shook the French capital in January 2015 was the turning point.  “Charlie Hebdo is the most extreme form of censorship, murder. However we all felt that something fundamental was at stake,” says Chappatte.

CERN: Will a black hole swallow the earth from Geneva? headlines the headline. "Are they that big-mouthed?" (Credit: Philippe Chappatte)

Kofi Annan wanted the foundation to be based in Geneva, a city to which he was very attached to and where he lived:

"Because of the magical ingredients that make Geneva: an international city, a city of peace, all the international organisations and the fabric of NGOs fighting in the same direction. And for me, a Genevan at heart, the fact that the press cartoon is recognised here, that this prize is awarded on International Press Freedom Day, during the session of the Commission on Human Rights, and that it becomes an exhibition on the shores of the lake, open to the public."

This year, Chappatte was also awarded the Fondation pour Genève prize for his outstanding contribution to the influence of Geneva and his commitment to freedom of press and expression. "It's quite a strong message at a time when press cartoons are being called into question," says Chappatte, who regrets that the sanitary crisis has delayed the Freedom Cartoonists Foundation's price to May 2021.

“The extremists, the autocrats, the dictators and all the ideologues of the world cannot stand humour…We need political cartoons more than ever and we need humour.”

A culture of humour and laughter that Töpffer invented and which is more relevant than ever.

Chappatte says he was influenced by Honoré Daumier in France or James Gillray in England, contemporaries of Töpffer and whose freedom marked him. Their drawings also had a direct influence on the fate of politicians. Although it is by no means true to say that Töpffer defended the values that make Geneva international today, a recent idea that did not exist in 1830 - Geneva was a canton and a fortress at the time - his works had a definite resonance with the European public, and his Voyages en zig zag published in 1843 in L'Illustration in Paris was a bestseller. It was so successful that it was even pirated. According to Kaenel, “This is Töpffer's ambiguity: he was very open to the international market in his literature, he lived from internationalism, but he was a conservative, even a reactionary. He defended a classical ideal of the City ruled by wise and disinterested men.”

A unique breeding ground. Nevertheless, the Genevan was the first to reflect on the interaction between text and image. "He formalised what a narrative sequence was and was the first to theorise it," confirms Patrick Fuchs, dean of the Geneva School of Comics and Illustration (ESBDI). "He is an outstanding and innovative figure for his time. Since Töpffer, Geneva has remained an uninterrupted breeding ground for comic strips that is absolutely unique in Europe. Nowhere else in the world is there a tradition of illustrated political posters : that is specific to Geneva. The ESBDI was founded in 2017 to finally formalise a new generation of artists that was naturally taking over in a city that abounds in authors, publishers (La joie de Lire, Atrabile) and bookshops (La galerie Papier Gras, Cumulus) entirely dedicated to comic strips. The Rodolphe Töpffer prize thus gives substance to this momentum by rewarding a young comic strip artist "to support the next generation", a Geneva author "to reward the local vitality" and an international prize "to salute innovation" as the Geneva inventor did in his time. Drawing as a way of enlarging the world is the mission that Töpffer’s heirs continue to carry from international Geneva.