Mockery, Alive and Well Through the Ages
It is not nice to make fun of other people, but it is hard to resist. There is even a genre of art devoted to this often uncharitable impulse of human nature: caricature. Fine and popular artists have been producing comical, grotesque and weird images of people aPerhaps because it depends so heavily on what does not change about people, caricature has not undergone the kind of extreme transformations that the finer, higher arts of painting and sculpture have. That is one of many ideas to gather from â€œInfinite Jest: Caricature and Satire From Leonardo to Levine,â€? a fascinating and amusing exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Motives for mockery vary: they may be political, moral, aesthetic, psychological or misanthropic. But the basic material a caricaturist has to work with is always the same, those features of the human body that most distinguish one from another: noses, eyes, mouths, chins, teeth, torsos and extremities. There are also less tangible objects of derision: vanity, stupidity, venality, snobbism, dishonesty, criminality and other probably universal human foibles. To caricature is to pick out one or more of these properties and exaggerate them to the point of ridiculousness. Because his job is to make the fantastic seem viscerally real, the caricaturist must be skilled in the art of naturalistic representation. For caricature to exist in the first place there has to be a tradition of mimetic realism in place. The Renaissance provided that for European artists, as Constance C. McPhee and Nadine M. Orenstein, the Met drawing and print curators who organized the exhibition, point out in their catalog essay. So the show begins with a credit-cardsize graphite drawing of a manâ€™s craggy profile by Leonardo, a portrait that teeters between
realism and caricature. (Most of the 160 drawings and prints in the exhibition are from the Met’s permanent collection.) Many of the great draftsmen of the past six centuries are on hand. Some, like the sculptor Bernini and the painters Delacroix and Toulouse-Lautrec, were fine artists who dabbled in cartooning. In Goya’s “Caprichos,” four examples of which are included, satire tips into nightmare. But drawing does not get much better than it does in the wonderfully lively, supply delineated images by professional illustrators like the 18th-century British satirists James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson, whose works are among the show’s highlights. To admire caricature only for its draftsmanship, however, is to overlook its social and psychological urgency. And therein lies a problem. Caricature has a shelf life. We have to know and have feelings of our own about the artist’s target, whether a particular person or a type. The more distant in time its subject matter, the less funny it is and the more you need verbal explanation fully to appreciate its humorous deformations. A 17th-century print thought to be based on an image by Samuel Hieronymus Grimm shows an encounter between a father, in loose farmer’s clothes, and his son, who has adopted the urbane uniform of the British dandy. The patriarch gestures in alarm at the sight of his offspring’s enormous, elaborately sculptural wig, which is so tall the youth must use his sword to tip the little cockerel hat perched on its summit. This is funny and strange. But because such ornamental hairpieces went out of fashion long ago, it cannot be as biting for modern viewers as it would have been for its contemporary audience. When it comes to political cartoons, even more is lost on viewers not steeped in the histories of particular times. The print from which the show takes its title is a case in point. This 1864 wood engraving by the American Justin H. Howard depicts the Democratic Presidential nominee Gen. George B. McClellan as Hamlet holding in one hand not the skull of Yorick but the head of his opponent, Abraham Lincoln. “I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest,” declaims the general in an image likely to puzzle nonhistorians. On the other hand, consider “The Bush Years: A Summary,” a drawing made on graph paper in 2008 by the Dutch illustrator Siegfried Woldhek. Black lines jog downward from left to right as if to represent a falling stock market. With the addition of two crescents for eyes, they limn a portrait of a sad President George W. Bush. This is meaningful now, but is hard to imagine that a hundred years from now such a laconic, abstract image will stir the feelings that it does today. An etching by Enrique Chagoya brings us up to date. Based on “The Headache,” an 1819 print by another great British satirist, George Cruikshank, it portrays President Obama slumped in an armchair as six small demons torment him with drills, a horn and a stake that is pounded into his head. A museum wall label explains that it represents the opposition to his health-care-reform effort. These contemporary images are benign compared with the numerous, fearlessly critical, bawdy, scatological and otherwise impolite pre-20th-century pieces in the exhibition. Though exceptionally skillful, drawings by Al Hirschfeld, the longtime contributor to The New York
Times, and by David Levine, who for many years drew large-headed, Ingres-like portraits for The New York Review of Books, do little to stir the pot. A more daring selection of recent caricaturists would include Peter Saul, R. Crumb and Philip Guston. The art of contemporary caricature in all its scabrous glory is as alive today as it ever was. It cries out for a show of its own. â€œInfinite Jest: Caricature and Satire From Leonardo to Levineâ€? runs through March 4 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; (212) 535-7710, metmuseum.org. A version of this review appeared in print on September 16, 2011, on page C26 of the New York edition with the headline: Mockery, Alive and Well Through the Ages. t least since the days of Leonardo da Vinci.