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Vive la différence!

The relationship between England and France during this time period was complex. There was a great deal of travel and cross-cultural influence, which would often manifest itself in the emulation of concepts or qualities of the other’s culture. There was also a great deal of enmity. The two countries were rivals in economic, colonial, constitutional and religious ways, and they were at war for much of the 18th century, continuing into the 19th century. The differences which were celebrated by some were seen in times of stress as a threat to each side’s value system. The satires in this exhibition demonstrate how the portrayal of national stereotypes was affected by the fluctuating political climate of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Satires by their very nature are oppositional, and stereotypes by their nature represent a kind a gut prejudice, designed to accentuate and distort an idea of a figure into a pantomime image, a ludicrous parody. The stereotypes owed a lot to ignorance. The satirists were of course capturing only what they knew, which was at best based on first-hand observation, and at worst founded on rumours alone. They present far too limited a field to give a true impression held by an average citizen at any one time. In each print the neighbour is transformed into a figure of fun, but with multiple layers to the joke, such as social arrogance, jealousy or fear.

The prints say a lot about the preconceptions and humour of the audience for whom they were intended. The persistence of ‘types’ in both countries indicates their popularity, and this ongoing popularity no doubt perpetuated the element of ignorance. Even if the audience knew a stereotype was exaggerated, they wanted to be entertained, and the act of making the foreigner ridiculous was clearly a popular source of amusement. The subject matter was also well-liked by print-publishers because it had broad appeal and it did not quickly date, unlike the topical political prints. It was a subject that could be depended upon to draw crowds by playwrights and caricaturists alike.

Aside from the difference between the English and French caricature traditions, the exhibition gives an insight into the changing face of graphic satire itself. Content of the prints and the appearance of the stereotypes depended much upon the decade in which the artists worked, and whether the print was intended for propagandistic uses or for mere amusement. In setting up a contrast between the two countries this exhibition seeks to highlight aspects of their complex relationship, the appeal of this ancient rivalry for contemporary audiences and an insight into each country’s history, preoccupations and humour.

This online exhibition has been mounted to complement the Fitzwilliam’s display Vive la différence! The English and French stereotype in satirical prints 1720-1815, Tuesday 20 March 2007 to Sunday 5 August 2007

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