Monday, 5 November 2007

Albert Robida: The Forgotten French Master

As the French master of the Scientific Romance, Jules Verne has never been forgotten. His popularity endured throughout his lifetime, crossed political and geographic boundaries and loomed past his death, for Verne remains the most reprinted French author of all time.

Georges Méliès, the second great French master, did not fare so well. The precision with which he produced his films like A Trip to the Moon could not withstand the development of the Hollywood studio system with its near-assembly line schedules nor the refinement of cinematic art under the Germans and Americans. His last Scientific Romance was The Conquest of the Pole, made along with all his other final films in 1912. After this he fell into an obscurity alleviated only by his being discovered by some ardent admirers in the late 1920's, staffing a toy kiosk. While still too poor to die in any kind of luxury, his last years were spent receiving accolades for his pioneering films.

The third great French master has all-but languished, forgotten by time and overlooked by posterity. In fact, his obscurity is inversely proportional to his accuracy: Albert Robida, illustrator and author, was the most precise of the three, predicting everything from television to biological warfare and their effects on people and society. Though the most successful of prognosticators - perhaps ever - he has gone unrecognized. His work has sat gathering dust on shelves, sold only at auctions for thousands of dollars, save for the very occasional reprint and online transcription.

For a description of Robida's literature, I cannot possibly do better than the following article by Marc Agenot, and so I refer you to it...

Albert Robida's Twentieth Century
Robida's main fictional objective is to dream about man's ability to adapt, and to adapt not in any kind of heroic way, but in petty details as human beings try to rationalize progress, taking pride in its "advantages" and disregarding its absurdities. Robida is a conservative, old- fashioned satirist who seems to have taken literally the Marxian concept of the economic determination of ideological superstructures. That is why I cannot accept Nicholls' judgment about Robida as a simple inventor of gadgets. What the novelist-illustrator tries to imagine are the mass effects of technological change and the type of ideological discourse that would help people learn to "love" them. That is also why what he seems to discover, first of all, is a McLuhanesque civilization, where "electronic" media and ever faster means of transportation have realized the paradigm of a Global Village. Robida's Vingtième siècle is an anti-utopia where everything is electrically powered but where scientific progress is inversely related to what we now term "environmental concerns," which the present French government has in fact consigned to a "Ministry of the Quality of Life."

If Robida seems to be endowed with prophetic vision, that, I am afraid, is because he has no confidence in the "blessings" of progress with regard to their bringing about any "cultural revolution," and also because he was that type of pessimistic reactionary who appears to be convinced that were technology to strip life of all its charms, humankind would fortunately remain what it has always been: stingy, sheep-like, pretentious, and gullible--in sum: happily capable of adapting by deceiving itself that whatever is new is good and worthy.

As astonishing as Robida's work as a writer is, for many his main appeal is in his art as an illustrator. His twentieth century is a lushly bohemian world in which the fin de siècle never came to an end. The fluid, organic lines and naturalistic themes of Art Nouveau inspired his decidedly piscine airships. Meanwhile, corseted women, suited men and uniformed officers entered through Hector Guimard-style portcullis to dine atop a million Eiffel Towers.

This image, out of the Library of Congress archives, sets the tone most perfectly and is, I think, in itself a true masterwork of Parisian Retro-Futurist imagination...

1 comment:

Tom Kidd said...

I'd heard of Albert Robida but this is a very nice overview. Thank you.