The Art of Taxation: Joseph Hémard’s Illustrated Tax Code
Despite a few extreme images, it does not appear that Hémard was ideologically anti-tax.
Tax codes are notoriously dull reading. They are devoid of interest to anyone but professionals trained in the arcane language of the tax laws who, even then, never actually consult them except when required by a specific task at hand. The idea of a lengthy, commercially published tax code, profusely illustrated with humorous cartoon-like drawings full of puns and whimsy, beautifully hand printed in color, seems almost unimaginable. But such an incredible book exists. Add to this the facts that the book was printed in occupied Paris near the end of World War II and that it contains numerous risqué and decidedly anti-authoritarian images, and one begins to appreciate how truly fantastic this book is.
Code Général des Impôts Directs et Taxes Assimilées (General Code of Direct and Related Taxes), illustrated by the prolific book illustrator Joseph Hémard, was published on February 15, 1944, a mere six months before the liberation of Paris. The book was a joint venture of two publishers, Éditions Littéraires et Aristiques and La Libraire “Le Tryptique,” and printed by the company E. Desfossés. The text consists of national, regional, and local tax laws of France, divided into three main divisions or “books,” containing a total of more than 419 articles. The tax laws included in the book run the entire spectrum from income taxes on businesses and salaries of individuals, to property taxes on real and personal property, to taxes on mines and trade license fees, to taxes on mortmains (lands held by ecclesiastical and other entities), and even to municipal taxes on dogs. The text also includes administrative provisions and punishments.
Hémard’s Code contains a total of 183 illustrations ranging from small drawings used at chapter headings or ends to four full-page illustrations. The illustrations are lively,
almost cartoon-like drawings of unmistakably French persons and scenes—as is typical of Hémard’s work. Nearly all the illustrations are visual puns or whimsical illustrations of tax provisions. For example, real property depreciation is illustrated by a child with a slingshot running away from a freshly broken window. Notable depreciation from unforeseen events, the equivalent of our casualty loss, is depicted by a house blown up by a volcano while a ship founders nearby in a raging storm.
A number of illustrations deal with administrative provisions. For example, a provision addressing error in imposition of the tax shows a vagrant at the tax collector’s office holding a tax bill clearly issued by mistake. Several illustrations depict the plight of the taxpayer more metaphorically. An illustration for a supplemental tax for regional and local governments depicts a taxpayer literally being squeezed in a large press to extract the few remaining coins from him. Others are pure whimsy, such as an illustration for a tax on noncommercial businesses, which depicts a mushroom grower and a beekeeper being attacked by a swarm of bees. Similarly, the illustration for abandonment of marital domicile depicts a young woman, carrying a suitcase, being led off by Cupid as she waves adieu to her husband.
Finally, there are full-page illustrations at the beginning of the code’s main divisions, each depicting five ordinary French citizens. In the first illustration the citizens are dressed in their street clothes with hats, coats, vests, and umbrellas. With sad looks on their faces, they methodically begin to undress, throwing their clothing in a pile before them. Although there is no caption, the metaphor is clear: The citizens’ giving up their clothing represents the compulsory payment of taxes to the authorities. In the next illustration the citizens continue to undress as the pile grows. In the third illustration they are in their nightclothes and underwear or just stockings, which they are dutifully continuing to discard. In a final illustration, they are totally naked, walking off with sour looks on their faces while a tax collector with angel wings holds their discarded clothes over one arm and brandishes a sword in the other. This last illustration bears a caption, “Consummatum est!” (“It is finished!”), the final words of Jesus on the cross from John 19:30. Hémard thus not only depicted the collection of taxes as the methodical confiscation of all property from the public, but also analogized this supposed goal of the tax collector to the crucifixion of Jesus.
Despite a few such extreme images, it does not appear that Hémard was ideologically anti-tax. Rather, his illustrations simply reflect his humorous and light-hearted view of the plight of the taxpayer engaged in an eternal battle with the emotionless tax collector.
Code Général des Impôts Directs et Taxes Assimilées was not Hémard’s first foray into the world of illustrated law books. In 1925 he illustrated the family law provisions in the Code Civil. In about 1941 he also illustrated the Code Pénal. Those works closely resemble Hémard’s book on the tax code, with similar humorous illustrations of French citizens caught in the grip of the criminal or family law interspersed throughout the text, also published in limited editions in color.
Although it might at first seem surprising that Hémard’s Code, with its risqué and anti-authoritarian illustrations, was published during the repressive German occupation of France, it is in fact consistent with the nature of German censorship at the time. As long as publishers avoided books containing works by Jewish authors and specific works deemed anti-German, they “were theoretically free to publish what new works they pleased providing these were not injurious to the Germans.” The mildly erotic nature of Hémard’s illustrations and their anti-tax collector message would have caused little concern to the German authorities, who have been described as letting the French “choke on their culture,” and who in fact actually tolerated pornography.
Finally, there is the question of the book’s intended audience. The fact that the 800 copies were a lavish and expensive production intended to be custom bound by the purchasers leaves no doubt that the book was intended for the enjoyment of wealthy book collectors and not for routine use by lawyers and accountants. Nevertheless, it seems likely that tax professionals, whether book collectors or not, would have found the book irresistible.
In a brief preface to the Code, Hémard observed that, given “the complexity of the tax system,” it is understandable that some must rely on qualified persons to comply with their tax obligations, and that others, although essentially blind to the tax laws, choose to handle their tax obligations themselves, “strengthened by the illusion that a dark night does not offer more perfidious obstacles to the blind man than the perceptive one.” He then expressed his hope that the “especially arid matters covered by the general Code of direct taxes would receive some useful light through the art of the illustrator.” Hémard brilliantly achieved his goal; his illustrations bring the sterile world of the tax code to a vibrant and wonderful life, filled with humor and populated with peasants and shopkeepers, children and relatives, lovers and crooks, wealthy businessman and vagabonds, all being squeezed for their last sous by the relentless and merciless tax collector.
For More Information About the Section of Taxation
- This article is an abridged and edited version of one that originally appeared on page 163 of The Tax Lawyer, Fall 2006 (60:1). The complete text of the original article, including 19 delightful color illustrations by Joseph Hémard (a first for The Tax Lawyer), is available at www.abanet.org/tax/pubs/ttl/601fa06/3--KAT.pdf.
- For more information or to obtain a copy of the periodical in which the full article appears, please call the ABA Service Center at 800/285-2221.
- Website: www.abanet.org/tax.
- Periodicals: NewsQuarterly, quarterly newsletter; The Tax Lawyer, quarterly journal; The Practical Tax Lawyer (published by ALI-ABA in cooperation with the Section), subscription available to Section members at a significant discount.
- Books and Other Recent Publications: Effectively Representing Your Client Before the “New” IRS: A Practical Manual for the Tax Practitioner with Sample Correspondence and Forms; Sales and Use Tax Deskbook; The State and Local Tax Lawyer; Property Tax Deskbook; A Comprehensive Analysis of Current Consumption Tax Proposals; State and Local Taxation of Banks and Other Financial Institutions; Value Added Tax: A Model Statute and Commentary.
Farley P. Katz is a partner at Strasburger & Price, LLP, in San Antonio, Texas. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.