The Metropolitan Museum of Art was not a place I expected to find myself and other museum-goers laughing while looking at a show, yet that is exactly what happened when I visited Infinite Jest: Caricature and Satire from Leonardo to Levine. Along with fellow viewers I was laughing and smiling at the foibles of human nature, which artists from six centuries depicted. The show is an entertaining and enlightening journey into the history of satire, ridicule, and caricature in art. Caricature is exaggeration, often by ludicrous distortion. Caricatures, however, vary in the degree a cartoonist lampoons his subject. Those of political and social cartoonists, for example, reap scorn on their targets of derision. Other caricatures might exaggerate a person’s most prominent characteristics without necessarily serving their head on a platter.
Infinite Jest inspired me the first time I saw it. As a caricaturist and illustrator, I left the show like a car with a full tank racing to embrace humanity with pen and paper. Today, New York City, like nineteenth-century London and Paris, is teeming with characters and unique faces from all over the world. Descending into the subway has always been paradise for me. There, people sit in transit, waiting to get to wherever they’re going, reflective, deep in thought. It’s the perfect environment for surreptitious drawing as the great French caricaturist Daumier discovered almost 200 years ago.
The exhibition begins with Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings that portray unseemly grotesque and extreme physiques. They are a slap in the face to the academic ideal of beauty and proportion. Throughout the show, the draftsmanship is at a high level, from the swift confident strokes of Tiepolo to the brilliant, bawdy British caricaturists Gillray and Rowlandson; the humorous sculptural lines of the amazing Daumier, to the stylized, elegant calligraphic strokes of Al Hirschfeld and David Levine’s Ingres-like caricatures. Viewers could follow the evolution of caricature from one generation and one century to the next.
Many of the characters in the show appear as alive today as they were centuries ago. Times and technology may change, but certain humorous frailties of our nature remain constant. Looking at the satirical drawings of gluttony, avarice, vanity—all of those gleeful seven sins we are prone to commit—there is a warm sensation of Schadenfreude. There is also much satisfaction in seeing an artist armed only with pen and paper toppling the vain, the corrupt, pompous and powerful.
One of the show’s highlights featured works from the golden age of satire, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century France and England. The satirical drawings of British caricaturists Gillray and Rowlandson shine with the comedy of human misfortune. Rowlandson, an avid gambler, was well acquainted with that vice’s excitement and consequences: he died destitute after gambling away his fortune. His How to Pluck a Goose is a comedy with a stage set with four actors: three old women card sharps cheat a naive young military officer out of his money. Although women didn’t gamble publicly, as it wasn’t deemed proper, they could play for money privately. James Gillray’s scathing portrayal of gluttony and overindulgence in A Voluptuary Under the Horror of Digestion shows George, Prince of Wales, in a slovenly state of uncontrolled sloth and excess. Gillray and Rowlandson brought caricature to a new level by poking fun at specific people, rather than types.
Napoleon holds the dubious honor of being the first international caricatured figure, lampooned with ferocious wit by Gillray and Rolandson. An 1803 hand-colored etching by Gillray shows the diminutive conqueror with a large bicorne hat sitting opposite the British minister, William Pitt. They are carving up the world in the shape of a huge plum pudding that rests on a table for two. Napoleon takes a big slice out of Europe, while Pitt slices into the North Atlantic, dividing the world into two halves.
A colored print by an anonymous eighteenth-century British artist satirizes fashion with a giant billowing wig perched upon a woman’s fleshy buttocks. Her legs are adorned with white silk stockings, red garters, and high-heel shoes. Through our contemporary gaze it appears surreal and humorous, but it actually derives from Nobody prints, a type of seventeenth-century French print that featured a big head atop a pair of legs. Here, as the artist mocks the fashion craze for wigs and the lack of intelligence in fashion’s followers, he gives the bare bottom a sort of erotic appeal.
Another of the exhibit’s sections focused on people as animals and objects. Sheet of Rebuses with Birds with Human Heads by a nineteenth-century anonymous French artist includes recognizable types: the proud prancing peacock, the charming lovebirds, the turkey. Which type of bird or animal would you be? I always ask my cartooning class this question when we’re drawing caricatures. My students typically say I’m a rabbit or a turtle, never a lion or an eagle. Just as people can be personified as certain animals, we can also resemble objects, like when you see someone with a head like a hammer. Or Bill Clinton with a head the shape of a football. There are also heads shaped like a man’s sexual organ with a specific name to accompany it. Although there is nothing that blatantly vulgar in this show, there are scandalous stories behind some of the caricatures that are lost to viewers nowadays. Gillray’s Admiral Shaped like a Greek Vase is one example. The figure was thought to be that of the British envoy to Naples, Sir William Hamilton, an important collector of Greek vases. It was recently discovered that the figure of the tarnished vase is that of the more squat Admiral Horatio Nelson who, after being wounded in battle, stayed with his friend Hamilton and his beautiful wife, Emma, Lady Hamilton, who became his lover.
Political satire achieved another pinnacle in the work of America’s first powerful, original humorist, Thomas Nast. His bombastic attack on the corrupt powerbroker William Tweed and his cronies, known as Tammany Hall, helped bring down that criminal enterprise in 1871. Nast had absorbed fine lessons from the British and French cartoonists of previous eras.
The great caricaturist makes us feel and think about the issues or the satirized subject in a witty and timeless way. The work has immediacy. Great caricature, like great art, makes us see the world and each other differently. Personalities and individual features can appear more vivid. The visual virtuosity in satire, caricature, illustration and cartoons has come to be appreciated by a wider audience. Do the prints and drawing qualify as art? There are many that go beyond technical prowess and breathe life into line. Daumier is a prime example of a caricaturist who blurred the boundaries between illustration and fine art, high and low art. He was a first-rate draftsman whose drawings rose above craft; his electrified, expressionistic lines form volume, depth, emotion. With their sharp planes, protruding exaggerated sculpted features, light and shadow, Daumier’s caricatures emerge from flat paper. To achieve this effect, Daumier would attend legislative sessions, studying the faces of contemporary politicians and then return to his studio to sculpt their features from memory in clay. He elongated and exaggerated hawk-like noses, cavernous eyes, thin zippered lips, enormous foreheads, sharp cheekbones, flaring nostrils. Using his finished small clay caricature heads, Daumier could better see the planes and how light and shadow fell upon the faces he translated into lithographs and etchings. After his death, the clay heads were found in his studio and cast into bronze editions and reproduced in books. (The great French sculptor Rodin called Daumier a true sculptor.) Daumier’s clay heads and figures were not meant for public viewing; he painted and made them for his own satisfaction and study. The Infinite Jest show included seven Daumiers, such as The Legislative Belly, M’Prune and his brilliant caricature of Victor Hugo, but, unfortunately, none of his sculpted heads.
It is amusing how a drawing can cause so much distress in the ridiculed. Daumier’s satirical drawings of King Louis-Philippe landed him a prison sentence. On a lighter punitive note, I was always getting into trouble in high school for making humorous drawings of teachers and fellow students. Only later did magazines and other clients actually pay me to make caricatures.
As a young illustrator, I had the good fortune of visiting David Levine at his home studio in Brooklyn. He was already a famous and great caricaturist, so I was surprised he spent several hours talking and showing me his working methods. He was completely open, friendly and warm. Levine’s caricatures have that same sculpted form, contrasting light and shadow, as Daumier’s. Both caricaturists bring form and personality to vivid life. I am in awe of that technical prowess. Whenever I look at a work of art or illustration, I analyze first how it was made. There are certain works that are so magical and effortless, however, we lose ourselves in the timeless world they create. These are rare gems that capture a depth of feeling, a fleeting moment, a personality, a life.
The Infinite Jest show would have been enhanced by including more of David Levine’s caricatures and watercolors or any of Robert Crumb’s drawings. Not that I’m complaining. It is rare to see a major museum exhibition dedicated exclusively to humor. We don’t take humor seriously, or usually honor it with a museum show. Yet humor has a glorious visual history, which Infinite Jest begins to reveal.
To laugh at others brings us joy, but to be able to laugh at our own foolish behavior, along with others, is divine. Indeed, laughter cures that which ails us. Over twenty years ago an Australian millionaire was diagnosed with a terminal illness and told he had at most a few months to live. The millionaire began watching slapstick and other comedies until he laughed himself back to good health. This story was one of my first full-page color illustrations and taught me a lesson we often forget: Lighten up, don’t take yourself so seriously! Laugh a little!
This article appeared in the Spring 2012 print issue of LINEA.