It’s 1871, the year long French/Prussian war has just ended leaving massive loss of life on both French and German sides. In France, there’s a huge craving for revenge amongst the population who now have to pay a costly war tribute and give up land to the Germans. The power, strength and influence of the newly formed German nation is increasing in the eyes of the world.
The French feel betrayed and manipulated by their elites, sacrificed as pawns in a war they gained nothing from. It’s in this context and atmosphere that the designer and lithographer, Edmond Guilliaume expressed the nation’s feelings by attacking the architects of the Franco-Prussian War.
Guilliaume chose to feature the 4 leaders most reviled by the French at the time, those they held responsible, as death’s heads. He calls them out as “The Geniuses of Death” .
Otto von Bismarck, who became prime minister of the Prussian state in 1862 and of the unified German Empire in 1871. To a French audience, he was the cruel instigator of the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71). Guilliaume gives Bismark a skull head, superimposes the Prussian eagle on his face and has him looming malevolent, a a deadly coat of arms presiding over the destruction he has wrought.
Also on the German side, there’s the Kaiser, Prussia’s King Wilhelm I, the man responsible for creating a Prussian led Germany by uniting its many kingdoms against the common enemy, France. Guilliaume paints Wilhelm I as an aristocratic twin to his prime minister, Bismarck. He gives Wilhelm an ironic a crown of leaves like an ancient hero with a decaying skull and the body of a blood-sucking bat. In the distance, a church is raised to the ground. Wilhelm symbolises the very essence of the coldhearted, cold-blooded enemy.
On the French side, there’s Genius of Death, Emperor Napoleon III. A man whose weaknesses meant he failed to unite his ideologicaly torn nation in times of war and was unable to to resist the influence of the more belligerent factions of his government, leading him to start the war with Prussia after Bismark’s calculated provocations.
The Pope gets the Genius of Death treatment too. In the earlier Austro-Prussian War, Italy had sided with Prussia and the majority of Italians favoured the Prussians at the start of the Franco-Prussian War. Pope Pius IX, seen in French eyes as representing Italy, is depicted as a death’s head with bat’s wings hanging over scenes of execution.
Next to nothing is known of the artist, Edmond Guilliaume. What we do know is that, in his Geniuses of Death series, he harnessed the hatred and frustration of a nation against uncaring leaders. He expressed, made symbols of how they felt.
Today these portraits still retain a measure of their immense, dark power. There had been so many senseless war deaths when they were painted. There have been so countless war deaths since.
It feels refreshingly simple to point so powerfully at the people responsible.
To say, “It’s your fault. You’re to blame. You.”.