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The torture memos recall Daumier

April 19, 2009 |  1:00 pm

Les Blanchisseurs

News stories reporting Thursday's release of Bush administration memos authorizing CIA use of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques against Al Qaeda suspects in secret prisons around the world have noted a troubling fact. One of the memo authors was then-Assistant Atty. Gen. Jay S. Bybee, who since has been confirmed as a judge on the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The situation is straight out of something by Honore Daumier, the great 19th century satirist who skewered France's turbulent social and political life. UCLA's Hammer Museum has one of the country's great Daumier collections, including the lithograph above. It shows busy government officials working as poor scullery maids and washing the French flag in a wooden tub. A jurist wields a scrub brush, his labor examined by a government official and a sword-wielding fellow who may well be Louis Philippe, the self-styled "King of the French." Louis saw his popularity plummet starting in 1831, the year before Daumier published this lithograph, as conditions for the working classes deteriorated. The king, France's last, finally fled Paris in 1848 and died an exile in England two years later.

The lithograph is titled "Les Blanchisseurs" (The Launderers). The caption at the bottom is in French: "Le bleu s’en va mais ce diable de rouge tient comme du sang."

Translation: "The blue is washing out, but this red stains like blood."

-- Christopher Knight

Credit: The Armand Hammer Daumier and Contemporaries Collection. Gift of the Armand Hammer Foundation.