During the 1968 revolts, Mr. Wolinski co-founded the satirical magazine L’Enragé (The Enraged), and before that, he worked as an illustrator at Hara-Kiri, a precursor to Charlie Hebdo that was so provocative it was banned in 1970 after making light of the death of Charles de Gaulle, the former president.
Mr. Wolinski and his French cartooning companions — including Maurice Sinet, known as Siné, with whom he co-founded L’Enragé and who later had a column in Charlie Hebdo; and Jean-Jacques Pauvert, another frequent collaborator — held little back, sharing an obsession with sex and with the macabre and the forbidden. Religion, marriage, capitalism — it was all ripe for their ridicule. Their development as critics, cartoonists and activists came during a golden age of satire in France, when radical freedom of expression had tangible political effects.
But beneath this political activism, Mr. Wolinski was a man grappling with deep, human questions. “What was really interesting for me was to discover this poetical side of Wolinski that was hidden,” the curator of the exhibition, Rebecca Lamarche-Vadel, said in an interview. “When you understand that, actually, all of these drawings were very much informed by the metaphysical questions he was asking himself, you see the motifs of inner conflict.”
The 53 drawings at the Palais de Tokyo are arranged into categories around recurring themes and motifs in Mr. Wolinski’s early work: God, cliffs, mountains, flowers, turtles, gender, and the passage of time. The God drawings come first. In one, an exasperated-looking God looks down at Earth from a cloud. “Yet another gadget,” he quips. In another, a man holds up a balloon. “Hey God,” the man has written on the balloon. In both, the seriousness of the desire to know the divine is made funny by the drawings’ whimsical premises.
Mr. Wolinski’s lightness and internal investigations might seem like the opposite of radical politics: The drawings care little about ridiculing individuals or about pointing out flawed policies. But at the same time, they suggest the whole world would be altered if we saw ourselves with a little more levity.
The exhibition of Plantu’s work at the Bibliothèque Nationale, on the other hand, goes straight for the issues. In a recent drawing, which has the words “culture clash” in the background, Plantu draws increasingly zoomed-in depictions of a woman’s thong until it becomes a niqab and her bottom looks like the face of a Muslim woman wearing it. In another, which provoked a lawsuit from a right-wing organization that accused it of provoking hate or violence, the words “Pedophilia: The Pope takes a position” appear above an image of Benedict XVI as he violates a boy from behind. (The Court of Appeal of Paris dismissed the lawsuit.)
Plantu started his career at 21 with an illustration criticizing the Vietnam War that was published in the daily Le Monde, and his cartoons have appeared in that newspaper regularly ever since. In 2006, he and Kofi Annan, the former secretary general of the United Nations, formed Cartooning for Peace, an organization that promotes freedom of expression for illustrators.
“I do the work of a citizen who’s passionate and politically active,” Plantu said in an interview. “The difference from other citizens is that I recount my reactions in images.”
Plantu said that his brand of humor, although well intentioned, was also often misconstrued. “The word irony is incomprehensible to some,” he said, adding that a “lack of education and critical training” meant his works were misunderstood more frequently nowadays.
The directness of Plantu’s satire is markedly different from that seen in Ms. Lamarche-Vadel’s selection of Mr. Wolinski’s works. “When you see these works from Wolinski, they make you feel the political environment and settings without even speaking about them directly, which is very interesting and very important,” she said. “I think the B.N.F. is really seeing Plantu’s drawings as more of a comment on the everyday,” she said, referring to the Bibliothèque Nationale.
“I think both are really valuable,” she added.
Ms. Lamarche-Vadel’s point seems to be underlined in the two exhibitions. Satire is about shifting the balance of power from the powerful to the powerless. In both, we are encouraged to recognize the absurdity of our political figures, but also, the absurdity in ourselves.
In an 11-minute animated video illustrated by Mr. Wolinski that plays in the Palais de Tokyo’s underground cinema, a man bumbles through a gray, post-apocalyptic world. He soon finds himself facing a steep hill made of junk. With some effort, he ascends the hill, and is rewarded with a view of yet more junk — broken cars, a downed airplane. But he’s mesmerized by it all. It is a battered world, a world that may never recover from humanity’s self-destruction; but, here, atop it all, he’s finally been presented with access to the chaos in himself and in his world.
“Oh,” the man says, aghast. “It’s beautiful.”