Image of Black-American dockers in Saint-Nazaire (France) engraved by Jean-Émile Laboureur



This engraving is from a set of works made by the French artist Jean-Émile Laboureur in the harbour of Saint-Nazaire, France where he was assigned as an interpreter to the American Army in 1917. The image shows two Black-American Dockers having a brief rest in a cubist landscape.


In 1918, Laboureur wrote an article in which he explained that, for him, World War I was unprecedented because of the encounter in European territories of people coming from around the world. He considered such a mix as a lack of respect of what he called 'ethnographic geography'. His opinion was full of paternalism and supported what was commonplace racism in these colonial times. Nevertheless, as many French people did, he had a fascination for non-European people and this is noticeable in his artistic output.
American troops entered the war at the beginning of 1917. Because of segregation in the American Army, Black-Americans were predominantly confined to logistical work such as the unloading of ships’ cargoes in Saint-Nazaire.
Laboureur did several engravings showing the dockers in Saint-Nazaire. This one is part of an unfinished album - a sort of twin to the one devoted to the British troops located in the North of France, where he was assigned as an interpreter in 1915. One aspect common to both works is the old factory of Burin that Laboureur restored and modernised to express the war. Another commonality is the preference that he attached to person types rather than to an expression of their individuality.
Even though the artist developed a particular fascination for Black-Americans, it is important to observe that he reduced all of his human subjects to types: French soldiers, British soldiers, dockers, women from the north of France or from Brittany. In British Flanders or in Saint-Nazaire, he did not attempt to produce individual portraits as testimonies of war; rather he developed a new artistic technique in a cubist style with the subjects limited to type, in order to give a modern artistic image of the First World War. In this work, the modernity not only lies in the cubist aesthetic he adopted, but also in the image of the war shown as a hitherto unseen moment of discovery of the otherness, implying new cultural exchange among people.