Sem and his World of Caricatures

His incisive caricatures not only survive as unique documents from the Belle Époque and the World War but also serve as significant commentaries on life, love, death, memories and beyond.

Bohun Lynch in his book A History of Caricature (1926) writes, “…….we may say that caricature is, amongst the other things, the portrayal of an individual, as seen by another, without regard to the rules of drawing. Joseph Conrad, in Nostromo, speaks (and as it happens without any apparent thought of caricature in his mind) of “putting the face of a joke upon the body of truth”, which very neatly serves to describe at least one aspect of the art.”
Caricatures can simply be a form of entertainment-or the art can be employed to make deep intellectual engagement-Sem’s caricatures managed (and still manages) to do both.

Born and raised in an upper-middle-class family from Perigueux, Goursat self-published first three albums of caricatures, signing some as “SEM” probably as a tribute to Amédée de Noé who signed his caricatures for Le Monde illustré as “Cham”.

L'Entr'acte périgourdin n ° 16, 26/09/1886.

The above image is a caricature by Sem during his stay in Perigueux (when he was just beginning his journey as a caricature artist). It confirms to a caricature type representation common to most of the press cartoonists of the time and also a very common style of caricature in general, a full-length figure surmounted by an oversized head. This personal contribution of Sem to the local press beyond the constraints of news already announced the artist he was going to be.

The world of Perigueux was not enough for Sem’s artistic ambitions. Thus he left his hometown and arrived in the Bordeaux metropolis in 1890. Supported by Paul Berthelot of La Gironde, he became acquainted with the intellectual circle. But it was after visiting Paris that he produced some of his best works. His art became mature and got the brevity it needed. Goursat arrived in Paris in 1900, at the time of the opening of Universal Exposition and built his reputation by caricaturing prominent public figures. The first album he published in the city was Le Turf (1900), a print album of instantly recognizable personalities at the racecourse. The publication of Le Turf  (1900) immediately shot him to fame. Even the people he caricatured in Le Turf (1900) wanted a copy, and it quickly sold out.

An image from the album Le Turf (1900)

He again revisited the same subject of Le Turf (1900) in Sem au Bois (1908) where he drew the fashionable elite of France en route to Longchamp. The races were social events where members belonging to the higher strata of the society were expected to put in an appearance. Sem used this as an opportunity to caricature members of the aristocracy, artists and politicians.

Sem au Bois (1908)

The album (refer to the images above) shows a procession of carriages with men in hats, women in their finery, and even one horse in high heeled shoes which shows how physical appearance was given the utmost importance in this elite circle. If we talk about caricaturing eminent personalities then we see Colette, the author of Gigi (1944), riding in a coach driven by her husband, Willy (Henry Gauthier-Villars). Colette is seated next to her mistress, Marquise Mathilde de Morny (also known as “Missy”). Missy was well known for dressing in men’s clothing and seducing a number of women. The press sedulously documented her affair with Colette and the pair also created a scandal when they kissed onstage as a part of a pantomime production at the Moulin Rouge. The presence of Missy and Colette in the caricature can be seen as a celebration of same-sex relationship and through Missy maybe Sem is trying to be vocal about the fact that fashion cannot be gendered and one has the right to wear anything one likes. I am interpreting it in this way because though the love between those perceived as women was fashionable at that period of time, Missy was attacked for having a very masculine dress and attitude. However, these kinds of illustrations showing group portraits of the era’s prominent personalities was a  popular trope.  In fact, ‘Sem au Bois’ is similar in many ways to works by Michel ‘Mich’ Liebeaux, Marius ‘O’Galop’ and other well-known caricaturists for popular satirical magazines of late 19th & early 20th centuries. 

 Sem’s arrival in Paris coincided with a period of extraordinary effervescence in which Sem flowed. Paris was the centre of worldly and artistic life. French culture had influence throughout Europe and beyond. The Parisian bourgeoisie was at the top of this social pyramid which lived in the pressing need to show itself.

Sem was having the time of his life-parodying the elite Parisians and enjoying popularity for his caricatures. But his art took a dramatic turn after the declaration of First World War. The publication of albums punctuated by worldly life ends. His heart was no longer entertainment. Sem abandoned the observation of the male and female silhouette, for that of the military array.

A casualty. Champagne-War sketches by Sem (1915-1916)

Sem did not play an active role at the war front, but he participated in his own way, through his posters and prints. He delivered two war albums which bear witness to scenes from the life of the trenches.

The first album bears little trace of violence. Instead, it shows the daily life of the soldiers. However, it is in the second album that we witness sketches of violence, death and grief.

images from Sem’s 1st War album (1915-16)
images from Sem’s 2nd War album (1917-1918)

His poster Pour la liberte du monde depicts the statue of liberty appearing on the horizon over the Atlantic Ocean. In the yellow sky, we see the dawn of a new day and “Liberty” emerging from the shadow. Produced in 1917 shortly after the United States entered into the war, Sem’s posters suggest that the American soldiers will bring liberty to Europe. The text on the poster urges support through the purchase of a war bond: “For the freedom of the world.”

Pour la liberte du monde (1917)

However, Sem’s work was not only about mocking the elite and the realistic sketches of war. Sem’s caricatures were much more layered. When I was studying Sem’s caricatures I strongly felt that his work can be discussed in relation to the politics of gaze. To support the claim I made in the previous sentence I have chosen two images-One is a caricature of Josephine Baker and the other is the album cover of White Bottoms (1927).

Josephine Baker-Sem
White Bottoms-Sem

The “gaze” is a term that describes how viewers engage with visual media. These include advertisements, caricatures, television programs, and cinema. In Sem’s caricatures of Josephine Baker in her “banana skirt” and the cover of Sem’s album White Bottoms (1927) we see that the women are visually positioned as an “object” of male desire. Her feelings, thoughts, and her sexual drives are less important than her being “framed” by male desire. In the television series and book Ways of Seeing (1972), John Berger also addresses the sexual objectification of women in the arts by emphasizing that men look and women are looked at as the subjects of art. But maybe Sem is trying to critique upon this male gaze. Maybe Sem is trying to focus upon the point that women have all the freedom to express her body the way she wants and normalize this uninhibited portrayal of the “self”. Josephine Baker’s caricature can also be looked at as Sem’s statement about fashion-Maybe Sem is asserting the point that fashion is something in which one feels free and comfortable. We must remember that Josephine Baker’s costume, consisting of only a short skirt of artificial bananas and a beaded necklace, became an iconic image and a symbol of the Jazz Age and the 1920s. And as far as the album White Bottoms is concerned it can be seen as a reflection of the influence of American culture upon France. However, these caricatures are also interesting because we see an interesting power relation working between the viewer (i.e. “us”) and the picture-because to gaze is not just to look at-it implies the fact that how the person viewing is more powerful than the person being viewed at. This reminds me of Sartre’s concept of the gaze. The existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre introduced the concept of le regard, the gaze, in Being and Nothingness (1943), wherein the act of gazing at another human being creates a subjective power difference because the person being gazed at is perceived as an object, not as a human being.

The works mentioned above are definitely good but what attracted me most about the artist is his ability to capture a place and its essence. The caricatures are not mere documentation of a particular time but one gets to feel the flavour of that period. He not only sketched the place but also gave a sting to our imagination and helped us visit those places-In his initials sketches during his stay in Perigueux and Bordeaux you feel as if you are getting very much intimate with the place and its characters. For example, look at the image below. This image is of a theatre director of that time. But it’s not just a portrait of that person. Though I didn’t get any relevant details about this personality but this picture says about his attention-seeking nature-just look at the expression of his eyes-it seems as if he is trying to devour your attention-It also tells us about his habits in public and also makes us wonder what kind of an eccentric(or interesting for that matter) a person he might be-look at the hands that he puts inside his pants-and his fashion sense-torn pockets shows the financial status of that person-Maybe he didn’t earn well from the theatre.

Theater" M. Bory, directeur du Grand Théatre de Bordeaux

Another thing I felt while watching the caricatures that he made after his visit to Paris is that we don’t see any sketches of characters who belong to the lower section of the society (except in his last album White Bottom). This kind of representation of the lower strata of the society might be a commentary upon the hierarchical system in which the elite Parisians were at the top of the pyramid. Let us take a look at the image below.

Caricature by Sem

In this picture, we see a person ( who is not at all properly sketched) is cleaning the horse and the elite Parisian is standing(who is the most prominent figure in this picture)-This kind of representation of the lower class tells us about their conditions. The tone of the horse and the man cleaning it is same and in contrast to the elite Parisian which shows how people of the higher class used to treat the lower class people equal to animals.

But what really intrigued me in his works was the fear of losing fame

Sem Goursat Album 8 - Plate n.13
Sem Goursat Album 7 - Plate n.03 "To the varieties"

In both the images we see an artist and an almost empty hall. The images above portray one of the basic fears of an artist-whether anyone will watch him or not-whether anyone will remember him or not-and this fear of not being remembered probably made Sem fall in the trap of fame. During his initial years as a caricaturist he did produce interesting sketches

Sem Goursat Album 4 - Plate n.01.Double page. The port of Bordeaux at night.

In the image above we see Bordeaux. The blub which is a symbol of artificiality gets merged with the moonlit sky and also notice how the moon is lying above the bridge-Maybe Sem is trying to assert that in this world which is being devoured by artificiality we can find solace in an escape-an escape which gets wings through imagination. But I didn’t see this kind of sketches in his later works. In fact, the albums which he did after coming to Paris had a certain monotony to it-he was trying to repeat the success of Le Turf and Sem au Bois and in this chase of fame, his work became monotonous. The war hit him hard for sure (which I have discussed above) but he again became formulaic after the war ended. Though I have this complaint against Sem I love him for his portrayal of loneliness. Let us have a look at this image below.

Sem Goursat Album 19 - Plate n.04 Octave MIRBEAU, Duchess of MALBOROUGH, Count of GRANDMAISON

In this image, we see a couple dancing and then we see a man dancing with his dog which is probably Sem’s commentary about the hollowness one feels when one does not receive love and the loneliness one suffers from. With the presence of the dog, Sem has shown how people can find purity and compassion in the company of animals. It’s no coincidence that most of Sem’s sketches are filled with animals (the horse being his favourite amongst all).

Caricature by Sem

The image above is beautiful – We  see a couple and then we see a lonely old man-a presentation of the man’s youth along with his “love” and then the man who is alone in his old age. Maybe the man once had love in his life who is no more with him-It is a beautiful representation of how good memories remain with us till eternity and helps to sail the sea of painful thoughts. In this image we see the old man sitting in the same chair where his “love” used to sit. Maybe this makes him feel closer to her and help him relive the beautiful moments he spent with her. This reminds me of a scene from Wong Kar Wai’s Fallen Angels (1995) where the woman (played by Michelle Reis) who is infatuated by Wong Chi-ming (played by Leon Lai) frequents the bar just to sit in his seat and daydream about him.

Maybe that’s why I love Sem. He produced images that were probably truer to life than formal portraits. They were not only meant for mere entertainment but were also commentaries on life, love, death, memories, and beyond.



Ayan Dawn is an independent writer based in Kolkata, India. He is currently pursuing B.A in English from Ramkrishna Mission Vidyamandira, Belur math. He has worked as a writer in the National Geographic Photo Camp and has also featured as a citizen journalist in The Quint. Apart from this, his article is also published in Private Photo Review.

don't worry
You're subscribed!

Till then follow us on