The Daily Heller: Eduard Fuchs Collected Caricatures to Explain Europe’s Complex History

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“There are many kinds of collectors, and each of them is moved by a multitude of impulses. As a collector, Eduard Fuchs is primarily a pioneer. He found[ed] the only existing archive for the history of caricature, of erotic art, and the genre picture [of everyday life],” wrote the critic Walter Benjamin in an exhaustive essay titled “Eduard Fuchs: Collector and Historian,” published in 1935.

Fuchs’ work is probably unknown to most of you. So for today’s column I introduce the collector, whose work remains relevant today.

A German Marxist critic and historian, Fuchs (1870–1940) fortuitously entered my life while I was researching the history of racist and antisemitic visual stereotypes for a book titled Victims of the Image. I was referred to his Die Juden in der Karicature (the Jew in Caricature), published in 1921 during a particularly virulent period of murderous pogroms. Through the lens of material culture, Fuchs’ study of European antisemitism was a revelation for how prevalent and ingrained it was. I further realized that Fuchs’ work was the model to follow for using illustration and caricature as tools to analyze aspects of cultural and social movements and their consequences in the world. Fuchs had done what I was attempting with many of the same artifacts (e.g., prints, newspaper imagery, advertisements and book illustrations) to show how vast the practice of antisemitism was in his time. (Only he finished this massive volume, and I only wrote a few articles.)

Fuchs was not destined to be a scholar. Although he turned out a dozen-plus very dense analyses of popular culture, mores and morals. “His efforts constantly projected beyond the limits which confine the horizon of the research,” praised Benjamin. In Fuchs’ early years, he found a position at the left-leaning Münchener Post, which also published the Süddeutsche Postillion, a socialist magazine of political humor, which he joined as an apprentice. During the closing of one issue, the editors realized that there was not enough content to fill the editorial well; in a trial by deadline, Fuchs wrote all the remaining stories himself. He was eventually rewarded with promotion to the periodical’s editorship. It was then he fell under the spell of witty and sardonic graphic caricature and decided to write a book using caricature to tell a story of European peoples. Its title: Illustrierte Sittengeschichte vom Mittelalter bis zur Gegenwart (Illustrated History of Customs From the Middle Ages to the Present).

This would be only one of many titles released by Albert Langen Verlag, the publisher of the very popular anti-establishment weekly satiric cartoon journal Simplicissimus. These included the Illustrierte Sittengeschiche vom Mittelalter bis zur Gegenwart Vols. 1-3; Geschichte der Erotischen Kunst Vol, 1-2; and books involving caricatures about women, Die Frau in der Karikatur; sex in caricature, Der Karikatur der europäischen Völker ditter Band; World War I; and, by today’s standards, his most controversial, Die Judischer in der Karicature, with benign and vile caricatures of European Jews.

Fuchs built his own “art” collection of these materials destined for the trash bin, considering them not ephemeral but as narratives of times, places and contemporary thought. Fuchs was always aiming his work at a mass readership, hoping to bring scholars and intellectuals along, too. He was admired by Benjamin, whose important 1935 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction owed some of its inspiration to Fuchs, who also was interested in the “technology of war and its propagandistic preparation.” However, when Fuchs was working prior to World War I, Benjamin writes “the century was not yet conscious of the destructive energies of technology.”

Caricature of the Russian People’s Commissar for War Leon Trotsky Polish anti-Bolshevist Poster by Skabowski. From the time of the Polish-Russian War 1920.

Fuchs saw that “products of art and science owe their existence not merely to the effort of the … creative geniuses that created them, but also to the unnamed drudgery of their contemporaries,” writes Benjamin. Being a journalist, Fuchs assembled a wealth of popular culture and material evidence to write history that shed light on those responsible for the anonymous work. “This is the point where Fuchs the collector taught Fuchs the theoretician to comprehend much that was barred to him by his time. He was a collector who strayed into border disciplines such as caricature and pornographic representation [for his book Erotische Kunst.]”

After the Crash. Anonymous Viennese Caricature. Lithograph 1875.

Aside from the sociopolitical impact of Die Juden in der Karicature in exposing the magnitude of European antisemitism (which is in the DNA of much of East and West Europe), he opened doors for future critics and historians to understand how indispensable mass art is in scholarship.

Now that graphic design historians, researchers and archivists are on the prowl for any piece or scrap of design ephemera in order to develop narratives about the who, what and why of design, it is useful to remember that, long ago, others used mass media collections to discover how they impacted society. Most of all it is useful to know the name of the pioneer of this historical method. Thanks, Eduard Fuchs.

After the Crash, anonymous Viennese cartoon, 1875.
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