A book that reasonable men can take home as a souvenir[1]

Julia Secklehner introduces the artists behind a forgotten satirical record of the Lausanne Conference.

For six decades I have been drawing my fellow man and poking fun at his face. The truth is that the human face expresses for me the essence and the drama of life. It fills me with awe, worship and compassion, because if man is God’s most perfect creation, it is in his face that you can see it. [2]

Emery/Imre Kelèn (1896-1978) and Alois Derso/Alajos Desző (1888-1964) arrived in Lausanne separately in 1922. They met randomly at the press bar of the Lausanne Palace Hotel, beginning a working relationship that lasted over three decades. Their first joint work was produced in Lausanne: Guignol à Lausanne (1922). Consisting of twenty-five cartoons, the album represents the most comprehensive visual interpretation of the Lausanne Peace Conference in contemporary popular culture.

Derso and Kelén (right) leave Lausanne, just ahead of the French delegation (left)

The set includes classic portrait caricatures of members of the different delegations present, as well as cartoons of elaborate scenes of specific debates and life at the “fringes” of the conference – the form of the press circle, where journalists waited to obtain news about the conference from designated press officers. Pointed yet never malicious and rendered with fine situational humour, Guignol à Lausanne quickly became a success among the negotiators – so much so, in fact, that Sir Horace Rumbold asked for a special sitting with Kelèn, feeling that İsmet Pasha had been caricatured in a much better manner. Was his face not just as exciting?

Sir Horace Rumbold asked for a special sitting – was his face not just as exciting? 

Following the popularity of Guignol à Lausanne, Derso and Kelèn, the “inseparable ones”, launched a successful career as cartoonists of the League of Nations, which included the publication of several further albums, as well as contributions to satirical magazines and newspapers across Europe.[3] Indeed, while the golden periods of political cartooning are often tied to the rise of satirical magazines in nineteenth-century Britain and France, the heydays of publications such as Punch and L’Assiette au Beurre, in the years following the First World War the functions and power of cartoons remained hotly debated: [4]: in an age of political extremism fuelled by mass culture, the function of cartoons and caricatures as a popular art form that could transmit complex issues and political debates to wide audiences made it a subject of study among artists, psychoanalysts and cultural historians alike.[5] 

Precisely this function as a “popular” art, however, has also led to cartoon’s odd positioning between art historical narratives and historical illustration, which is rarely assessed in detail. This is all too true for Guignol à Lausanne: the album itself is an extraordinary record of the peace conference, as well as an unusual example of artistic collaboration between two artists. Moreover, their simple, light-hearted and poignant drawings are exemplary for a dynamic style of political cartooning that would only become dominant in the years following the Second World War.

As professional cartoonists and long-term migrants, Derso and Kelèn have fallen through the cracks of dominant art historical narratives. 

Both as a historical record and as an artistic object, therefore, Guignol à Lausanne merits closer attention. As for Derso and Kelèn, their fate is similar to that of many central European artists with extraordinary careers in the early twentieth century, whose transnational lives and adoption of different national and lingual contexts have led to their absence in an art history governed by teleological narratives and national frameworks.[6] As professional cartoonists and long-term migrants, Derso and Kelèn have fallen through the cracks of dominant art historical narratives.

After fighting in the First World War, both artists fled Hungary following the instalment of Miklós Horthy’s reactionary regime in 1919. Working and living in Switzerland, Germany, Britain and France until 1938, the pair, both Jewish, was again forced to emigrate in 1939, where their collaboration continued until 1950. The archive of their work today is hosted in the United States. Yet both artists dedicated their work to newspaper cartooning early on, which remains wholly unexplored.

“[Derso] ran around with a morgue of 10,000 faces in his head. He never forgot a face.” 

Derso, a good ten years older than his partner and a draughtsman trained in Budapest and Paris, already contributed to Hungarian magazines before the First World War, including the satirical magazine Fidibusz (1909-1911) and the newspaper Erdélyi Bakter (1910–1912). A skilled draughtsman, particularly apt to remembering faces, Derso always sketched from memory – “he ran around with a morgue of 10,000 faces in his head. He never forgot a face.”[7] 

Celalletin Arif of the Turkish Delegation

Kelèn published his first caricatures as a twenty-five-year-old, recovering from the trauma experienced at the Isonzo front in an asylum in Trnava/Nagyszombat in 1917, before making a short career as a sports caricaturist for the Munich sports magazine Fußball.[8] Coincidentally, the magazine shared a corridor with another newly founded publication, the Völkischer Beobachter, leading to the first instance in which Kelèn encountered Adolf Hitler, finishing his recollection of the event with the following words:

In a time of mass communication, beware the paranoid politician. The diagnosis is easy to make. He reveals himself when he talks violently and irrationally against someone or something. His eyes are dark with the baboon’s frown. [. . .] On the man himself is written the history he is making for us. [9]

Accounting for the caricaturist’s acute observation skills and the numerous instances in which Derso and Kelèn brushed shoulders with men (and it was almost exclusively men) who made history, the comment reveals how they understood their role and why it is worth reconsidering their almost forgotten work. Working by the notion that caricatures and cartoons should reveal the “essence” of one’s character or a situation, Derso and Kelèn were in the unique position to follow this practice alongside some of the most significant diplomatic events in European history.[10] In turn, Guignol à Lausanne, the souvenir for “reasonable men”, is the first realization of this project, promising not only new insights into the Lausanne Peace Conference, but also a significant document of modern cartoon history.

 “Entertaining the world isn’t always a laugh, you know, my dear Karagöz. . .” 

See more of the

Derso & Kelèn collection



[1] Emery Kelèn, Peace in their Time. Men Who Led Us In and Out of War, 1914-1945. London: Victor Gollancz, 1964, 117.

[2] Kelèn, Peace in their Time, 444.

[3] Arved Arenstam, “Das Frühstück des Friedens“, Neues Wiener Journal, 14 September 1925, 5.

[4] David Kerr, Caricature and French Political Culture 1830-1848. Charles Philipon and the Illustrated Press. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000. Lesley Milne, Laughter and War. Humorous-Satirical Magazines in Britain, France, Germany and Russia. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017.

[5] Ernst Gombrich and Ernst Kris “The Principles of Caricature”, British Journal of Medical Psychology, 17 (1938), 319-342. Walter Benjamin, “Eduard Fuchs: Collector and Historian“, New German Critique, 5 (Spring 1975):27-58. Sigmund Freud, Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious. Trans. Abraham Arden. London: T.F. Unwin, 1916.

[6] Circulations in the Global History of Art, eds. Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann, Catherine Dossin, and Béatrice Joyeux-Prunel, Studies in Art Historiography, Surrey, England and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2015.

[7] “Aloysius Derso, Cartoonist, Dies; Drew Diplomats at Parleys Between World Wars”, The New York Times, 23 December 1964, 27.

[8] Kelèn, Peace in their Time, 41.

[9] Kelèn, Peace in their Time, 86.

[10] Janis L. Edwards, Political Cartoons in the 1988 Presidential Campaign. Image, Metaphor, and Narrative, New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1997, 143.

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