Short Skirts, Telephonoscopes and Ancient Locomotives: Albert Robida’s Vision of the Twentieth Century
Lotte Kremer is a Research Master student at the programme Art History of the Low Countries at Utrecht University. She mainly focuses on nineteenth-century arts, with attention to history painting, illustration, and collecting practices. These interests are tied by the artist’s relation to tradition, the use of sources, and interdisciplinary.
Albert Robida (1848-1926) was a French illustrator, caricaturist and novelist. In 1883 he wrote and illustrated Le Vingtième Siècle, a futuristic novel which gives us a look at twentieth-century life. This book is a science-fiction landmark, with its ambivalent attitude towards technology. In his development of such a detailed and coherent aesthetic of the future, Robida was the first true science fiction illustrator. Robida’s illustrations are an integral part of the novel and are thus worth analysing as a means of expression. I take a closer look at the illustrations, analysing their content and the way they interact with the text. I especially focus on the way they relate to Robida’s own historical context. First, the novel’s place in the science fiction genre is discussed, then its place in developments in illustration. Toward the end, the fashion, architecture, technology and general culture is taken into account. This provides the answers to the central question: how does Robida’s imagined future fit within his time? The novel acutely describes the mass effects of technological change. Robida creates a world akin to an anti-utopia. He conveys his ambivalence towards this progress and its repercussions through the fate of monuments, unthinking historicising fads and the effects of new technology on daily life. He creates a fleshed out world where his contemporary culture is mixed with a futuristic one. His illustrations contribute to this realistic world, which the reader explores from within. I compare this work to the world Robida lived in and to his other endeavours, using both visual evidence and historical context. The illustrations, filled with airplanes, short skirts and telephonoscopes, show a light-weighted commentary on Robida’s changing time, unchanging human nature and the uneasy relationship between past and progress.