Figure/Ground: Alphonse Allais’ April Fools Album (1897)

Alphonse Allais (1854–1905) “was probably the finest humorous writer France has ever produced”, writes the translator Miles Kingston in a forward to the recent collected edition of his work, but remains “an almost totally obscure figure” in the English-speaking world. This is puzzling because Allais’ innovations are manifold. They range from the impressive though quasi-conventional — becoming editor of the newspaper Le Chat Noir; dabbling in photography and rubber production; inventing a version of Nescafé avant la lettre — to the utterly bizarre. Finding traditional hotel wake-up calls jarring, Allais would arrange for the concierge to phone the guests on either side of his room, rising at dawn to the muffled sounds of his neighbors’ outrage.

A man of many talents, Allais’ series of paintings, collected in the monograph Album primo-avrilesque (roughly translated as An April Fools Album) arose, perversely, from his lack of aptitude in the realm of visual art. Each of the seven monochrome plates, bordered by lace-like decorations, features a title which implies the dissolution of figure into ground. A Campbell’s-soup-red rectangle comes with the title Apoplectic cardinals harvesting tomatoes on the shore of the Red Sea (an effect of Aurora Borealis). A frame filled with nothing but blue, anticipating Yves Klein’s later experimentation, gets explained by an effusive caption: Astonishment of young naval recruits seeing, for the first time, your blue, O Mediterranean Sea! Allais’ white painting, which antecedes Rauschenberg’s modular series by more than fifty years, claims to show anemic girls commuting to their first communion during snowfall. The Album ends with a funeral march. It consists of a blank musical staff, beating John Cage to the punch, perhaps meant to be “played” alongside another Allais invention: a hearse whose coffin compartment contains a cremator.

In the Album, we witness Allais’ humor assume a register that is more than merely off-color. The funeral march appears below a dedication — for “a great deaf man” — insisting that ableist prejudice follows one beyond the grave. His black plate comes with the title Combat de nègres dans une cave, pendant la nuit (Negroes fighting in a cellar, at night). As the art historian Rebecca Zorach notes, the joke sabotages the series’ conceit of representation. If there is no light in the supposed cave, why would skin color even matter?

Unlike most of the other figures in the series. . . the African bodies of the black painting are socially undifferentiated. They don’t, apparently, wear clothes, they don’t interact with objects, they do nothing but fight with one another, in the dark, and *of* the dark. They simply *are* their bodies, unseeable and unknowable. The reduction to darkness, not just the antiquated nomenclature of “negroes,” which could pass in some other circumstance, cements the racism of the phrase.

Allais’ preface offers little in the way of critical distance, imploring his readers to let the work speak equally for both itself and himself. Yet the joke was not, in fact, Allais’ own (though he later claimed it as such), but an imitation of poet Paul Bilhaud’s “painting”, produced for the Salon des Incohérents. This proto-Dadaist exhibit responded to the critique — widespread in 1890s France — that modern artists could not paint. Gathering a group of artists who, in fact, could not paint, the Hydropathe Jules Lévy held this salon in his Left Bank apartment. Thousands were said to have attended the exhibition, including Manet, Renoir, Pissarro, Wagner, and a Bavarian king.

Set within a wider history of the representation of Black bodies in Western art, Bilhaud and Allais’ gag is not unique in its reduction of subjects to monochrome colors. Tanya Sheehan opens her study of photography, race, and humor by discussing a stereocard, produced by the Universal Photo Art Company of Philadelphia, titled A Study in Black and White (1900). Here Black infants are seated amid a mound of cotton that expands beyond the frame. “Since most photographic processes depended on light’s stimulation of silver nitrate to darken, or blacken, the white ground of a photosensitive surface, the medium served as a ready metaphor for racial difference and the ground upon which many jokes about race were laid.” While photographic exposure complicates questions of racial imaging — where, stretching into the contemporary, digital world, optical white balance encodes social narratives about “normal” contrast, even without a “Shirley card” — racism also haunts the artistic tradition closest to this Album: monochromatic painting. In 2015, researchers at Russia’s Tretyakov Gallery discovered an inscription under the topcoat of Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square (1915). Its contents? Bilhaud and Allais’ joke (though experts differ on the inscriber).

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