A number of reasons caused a revival of the caricature during the war in Belgium. It’s an interesting medium. Exaggeration or simplification of facts creates a comic effect and it reflects the essence of a situation so it can be comprehended at one glance. At the same time, it can contain deeper meanings that are only accessible through imagination. This turns the cartoon into a complex medium, sometimes hard to interpret as soon as the context changes.
The war caused a particular atmosphere in which rumours could thrive. They were often the subject of caricatures and cartoons. This shows us how caricatures can play a double role as a medium: the rumour has been magnified to create a comic effect, while it sustains and spreads it at the same time. Propaganda determined the content of the caricatures and cartoons as well. It was part of daily life. In Belgium there was German propaganda on one side, and anti-German propaganda on the other. Our collection of caricatures and cartoons is situated on the anti-German side, but mainly deals with daily life in Brussels. Cartoons and caricatures are supposed to keep up morale and encourage resistance.
The occupation of Belgium influenced individual as well as collective experience: people had to face emotions such as fear, insecurity, indignation and rage on a daily basis as a result of the hunger, cold, illness, poverty, restriction of freedom… Cartoons were an outlet for emotions that everyone knew so well. Caricatures and cartoons evoke a smile and put things into perspective. In addition, they generate a sense of recognition and connection: universal archetypes, mythical events and characters are often incorporated in the images. Those elements position new situations and events in the collective consciousness. Artists frequently represented certain characters as animals, or with typical recurring facial or body features (e.g. the fat profiteer). Like myths, they satisfy the need for reassurance and simple explanations. Negative archetypes that are frequently used in the Brussels cartoons are of course the enemy, but they can also be found within the local population. War profiteers, ‘nouveau riches’ and hoarders were popular targets.
Popular themes were of course the enemy and the role of the allies, but most caricatures and cartoons talk of daily life: the changeover to German daylight saving time, the recurring and changing German regulations that constantly made life harder, but especially the scarcity of food and all its consequences.
Because of the war, Belgium was stricken by food scarcity. The blocking of imports by Great Britain had severe consequences for a country with an external orientated economy, a country that feeds its people mainly by import. Internal agricultural production was insufficient and the German claims issued to support their participation in the war had worsened the scarcity. Brussels found itself in a very fragile position, with the imports having stopped and a very restricted access to local rural production. Food became a significant concern and worry for the people in Brussels.
Facing this new situation, the government and private charities organized to meet the needs of the population with the distribution of meals, community department stores, price regulation of basic products, the cultivation of public grounds. These measures helped to supply the population, but they also caused endless queues and unwieldy and limitless administration. These are often topics in the cartoons. Government intervention was nevertheless a useful and much needed measure because prices on the market hit the roof! The grave scarcity of food made it possible for producers and salesmen to impose extravagant prices. Some of them took advantage of the situation to enrich themselves. Those ‘dealers’ and ‘profiteers’ are often put on display in the Brussels caricatures and cartoons. Other consequences of the food scarcity were the all-round emergence of food falsifications, and the development of a black market.
In addition to the artistic value, these caricatures and cartoons offer us a unique outlook into how people experienced the German occupation in Brussels. Focused on the scarcity of food they show us to what extend daily life got more difficult and the irritation and resentment that grew among townspeople towards the farmers. The cartoons and caricatures illustrate how people tried to deal with these emotions in a humoristic way. Sources:
Jaumain S., Piette V. (2005). Humor op oorlogspad. Brussel en de karikatuur in 14-18. Brussels: Archief van de Stad Brussel
Jaumain, S., Piette, V., Pluvinage G. (2005). Bruxelles 14-18. Au jour le jour, une ville en guerre. Bruxelles : Archives de la Ville de Bruxelles