June 8, 2012
It was not entirely a laughing matter to tour the recent exhibition Infinite Jest: Caricature and Satire from Leonardo to Levine at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. While not an overwhelmingly large show (comprising 160 items), it covered the entire history of caricature from the Italian Renaissance to the present, providing an excellent survey of the subject. Jokes from a century or more ago can be quite difficult to understand. To grasp why they’re funny is often hard work.
Fortunately, the show has a well-written catalog by its curators, Constance McPhee and Nadine Orenstein, which led me smoothly through the challenging material. Of all the catalogues I’ve acquired lately, this one has been the most fun to read. At once erudite and entertaining, it lays out a wonderfully succinct and enjoyable account of a seemingly esoteric subject.
The History of Caricature
The modern art of caricature—that is, the art of drawing funny faces that are often distorted portraits of actual people—traces its roots back to Leonardo da Vinci, although we don’t know whether Leonardo’s “caricatures” of handsome and ugly heads were intended to be funny or were made as quasi-scientific investigations of the deforming effects of age, and of the forces that generate these deformations.
The word “caricature,” which fuses the words carico (“to load”) and caricare (“to exaggerate), was first used in the 1590s by the Carracci brothers, Agostino and Annibale, to apply to pen drawings of distorted human heads—generally shown in profile and arranged in rows to show a progression.
Caricature in the modern sense seems to have been created by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. He was apparently the first to create satirical drawings of recognizable people. Interestingly, he seems to have somehow turned this art into a backhanded form of flattery, similar to the celebrity roasts of today. Being important enough to satirize was proof of one’s importance.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the art form developed as a curious mix of the crude and obvious, and the obscure and arcane. At one level, it reduces the language of visual expression to its most uncultured elements, and certain devices seem to be repeated almost endlessly: exaggerated faces, processions of funny-looking people, people with faces like animals, and a good deal of bathroom humor.
At the same time, drawings in which individuals were caricatured often contained sophisticated puns and in-jokes, rooted in wordplay. Perhaps the most famous examples of this are the series of lithographs by Honore Daumier from the early 1830s representing King Louis-Philippe in the form of a pear. The monarch’s face, with its large jowls, was pear-shaped, and so was his rotund body. In French slang the word for pear, le poire, was also a colloquial term for “simpleton.” Also the king’s initials, L. P., could be read Le Poire. The basic visual trope communicates its message clearly, even if we don’t grasp the wordplay. We can gather that the king was being ridiculed for being sluggish and obese. In many instances, however, particularly with political satire, this sort of punning became almost deliberately arcane, rather in the fashion of the iconography of medieval saints.
An early print by Eugene Delacroix ridicules censorship of the press by reactionary monarchists with a representation of the famous horse race at Longchamps being run by crayfish carrying a surreal set of riders. One crayfish carries a sugar loaf (le pain de sucre), which represents a censor named Marie-Joseph Pain; another carries a chair (la chaise), which stands for the censor La Chaize. Why are they riding crayfish? Because they are mounts “perfectly suited to these men who never rose to any heights and usually walked backward,” according to a long explanatory text accompanying the image, published April 4, 1822, in the leftist newspaper Le Miroir. Careful study of the print reveals that nearly every element contains a pun or political allusion. The unfinished Arc de Triomphe in the background stands for the liberal ideology that the censors were trying to displace.
Many of the key figures in the history of caricature were great masters of “high art” as well: Leonardo, Bernini, Delacroix, Pieter Breughel the Elder, Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, William Hogarth, Francesco de Goya, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Claude Monet and others. But many remarkable caricatures were produced by artists who are not well-known; and the form also produced an interesting set of specialists, such as James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson and George Cruikshank, who made caricatures and very little else. Thus, the challenge of writing a history of caricature makes us rethink what art history is all about: both how to describe its major developments and who to consider a figure of importance.
The Print Room at the Metropolitan
The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s remarkable collection of prints and drawings is much larger and far more comprehensive than any other in the United States. It has about 1.2 million prints and 12,000 illustrated books. It contains a vast assortment of prints that most art museums would not bother to collect: ornamental prints, costume plates, broadsides, political broadsides and even baseball cards. Therefore the museum could assemble an exhibition of caricature, including popular prints, of a sort impossible to assemble anywhere else in America. There are autograph drawings by major masters and remarkable prints by figures such as Francois Desprez (French) and Henry Louis Stephens (American), who are obscure even to specialists in French or American art.
The History of Caricature: Caricature and Democracy
Facing a sprawling topic, the curators chose to organize the exhibit following four themes, with content within each category arranged chronologically. The first section explored exaggeration as it developed over time, starting with deformed heads and developing to strange distortions of the body as a whole, including peculiar creations in which human features merge with those of animals, or take the form of fruits and vegetables, piggybanks, moneybags and other objects. The show then moved on to social satire, much of it focused on costume or obscene humor; political satire, which often has narrative references related to the literature and political writing of a period; and celebrity caricature, a genre that emerged in the late 19th century, and reached its peak in the 20th in the work of figures such as Ralph Barton, Al Hirschfeld and the famous singer Enrico Caruso.
What’s nice about this scheme is that it allowed me to move quickly and easily from observations about the general history of caricature to detailed entries on the individual works. The scheme also carried some theoretical implications. Surprisingly little has been written about the “theory” of caricature: In fact, only two writers have focused seriously on such questions, both Viennese art historians, Ernst Kris and Ernst Gombrich. They were chiefly interested in the expressive nature of caricature and considered it from a psychological perspective—either under the influence of Freud, whose theories shed light on some of the deep emotional roots of caricature, or under the influence of Gestalt psychology, which provided clues about how we draw meaning by collecting clues from expressive visual fragments.
What McPhee and Orenstein bring out is the social aspect of the art form, which has a strong element of performance and seems to depend on the existence of a specialized audience.
Caricature requires an audience and the modern mechanisms of marketing, production and political and social communication. To a large degree, in fact, it seems to be allied with the emergence of modern democracy (or of groups within an autocratic system that function in a quasi-democratic way), and it seems to thrive in cultural sub-groups that are slightly estranged from the social mainstream. At times, in fact, caricature appears to evolve into a sort of private language that affiliates one with a particular social group. The ability to tolerate and even encourage such ridicule seems to mark a profound cultural shift of some sort. Generally speaking, totalitarian despots don’t seem to delight in ridicule, but modern American politicians do. Like the detective story, which did not exist until the 19th century, and seems to thrive only in democratic societies, the growth of caricatures marks the emergence of modern society, with its greater tolerance for diversity of opinion and social roles.
Cartooning, Cubism, and Craziness
Did I have criticisms of the exhibition? I have several, although to some degree they’re a form of flattery, for they show the project opened up major questions. My first criticism is that to my mind the show defined caricature too narrowly; it left out art forms that are clearly outgrowths of caricature, such as comic books, the funny papers, animated cartoons and decorative posters that employ a reductive drawing style. From the standpoint of creating a manageable show, this was surely a sensible decision. Indeed, what’s wonderful about the show and the catalog was the clarity and focus of its approach—the way they reduced the entire history of caricature to a manageable number of examples. But at the same time, this shortchanged the significance of caricature and separated its somewhat artificially from the history of art as a whole.
This first criticism leads to my second. The show failed to explore the fascinating ways in which caricature—as well as “cartooning”—were surely a major force in the development of modern art. The drawings of Picasso and Matisse, for example, moved away from the sort of “photographic realism” taught in the academy to a form of draftsmanship that was more cartoonlike—and that can still sometimes appear “childish” to people who feel that images should translate the world literally.
Some of Picasso’s most important early Cubist paintings—his portraits of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, Ambroise Vollard and Wilhelm Uhde—are essentially caricatures, one step removed from the celebrity caricatures of figures like Max Beerbohm and Marius de Zayas. One might even argue that Cubism was fundamentally an art of caricature—an art of representing things through distortions and “signs,” rather than more literal but more lifeless forms of representation. Could it be that “caricature” lies at the heart of modern art?
My final criticism raises issues that are even more daunting. While the works included in the show were delightful, the curators sidestepped one of the fundamental aspects of caricature—that it has an edge of nastiness that can easily lead into prejudice and bigotry. It often veers into ethnic and racial stereotyping, as in the caricatures of Irish-Americans by Thomas Nast or African-Americans by Edward Kemble. At its extreme, think of the Jewish caricatures created by Nazi German cartoonists—which surely played a role in making possible the Nazi death camps.
One can sympathize with the organizers of this exhibition sticking to the quaint political squabbles of the distant past and for avoiding this sort of material: After all, they didn’t want their show to be closed down by picketers. I frankly don’t know how such material could have been presented without causing offense on somebody’s part, but without it, a show of caricature feels a little muted. Caricature is a dangerous art.
It’s precisely that delicate line between what’s funny and what’s not acceptable that makes caricature so powerful. Caricature has often been a mighty tool for fighting stupidity and injustice. But it also has been used in the service of bigotry. A comprehensive history of caricature would more deeply explore some of the ways that this art form has a wicked aspect and connects with the dark corners of the human soul.
June 1, 2012
Not many people alive today remember Jackson Pollock, or can say they visited him in his studio and discussed painting with him. One of the few is Richard Field, now retired, who taught for many years at Wesleyan and then became print curator at the Yale Art Gallery. I first got to know Richard during my impoverished student days, when I was teaching a class at Wesleyan. A friend who made a regular trip to Boston would drop me off to teach; after the class ended, I would hitchhike back to New Haven, hoping to get there in time for an afternoon section I was teaching at Yale.
Not long ago, I ran into Richard by chance at a symposium on the South Seas paintings of John LaFarge. Slightly more gaunt today, his face has weathered into one that resembles a biblical prophet.
Field is one of those art historians who have worked all over the map, producing gemlike pioneering studies that have marked out new direction in the field, but are so modestly presented, so intensely focused that their true impact is often not recognized until years later. They have also been so diverse that it’s hard to believe they were written by the same person. I’m sure every profession contains figures who’ve done extraordinary work but who labor in relative obscurity and have never become household names. Richard Field is one of these people.
Field wrote his doctoral dissertation at Harvard on the Tahitian paintings of Paul Gauguin. Probably his best-known publication is a catalog of the prints of Jasper Johns—one of the first truly scholarly publications on the work of a contemporary artist. He’s currently working on an exhaustive study of the earliest surviving woodblocks from 15th-century Europe.
But curiously, he’s never published an account of one of his most memorable artistic experiences, a visit with Jackson Pollock in his studio on Long Island. I learned of this quite by accident, when I mentioned in passing my admiration for Pollock’s work. This led to a note from Richard shortly afterward about this experience, which I’m quoting here with his permission. To my knowledge this visit has never been mentioned in the extensive literature on Pollock. Perhaps this brief blog story will inspire a more extensive write-up, either by Field himself or by someone who interviews him in detail.
As Field himself would confess, part of what’s fascinating about his meeting with Pollock is the rather casual, even half-assed quality of the experience. He was quite young at the time, still an undergraduate, and the art world was not the super-heated, money-making machine that it is today. Pollock’s work was so new that no one knew quite what to make of it or how to describe it, and even Pollock himself was clearly a bit at a loss for words when trying to explain what he was up to.
Of course, in a sense, Field’s story is a confession of what was probably the biggest goof of his lifetime: that he didn’t purchase a painting by Pollock. But what’s interesting to me is the degree to which he was receptive to Pollock’s work at a time when most people, even at places like the art history department at Harvard, thought it was nonsense.
But enough of preliminaries! Let’s hear from Richard Field. What first awakened his interest in Pollock’s work was a show of abstract paintings at the Fogg Museum.
“By my senior year, I had become an art major and had chosen to write a long paper about Pollock in a seminar that was being given by Benjamin Rowland. He had kindly allowed me to work on Pollock, although I was an undergraduate, in a graduate seminar. I had been to see his shows in NYC regularly.”
The art world was smaller in those days and it wasn’t difficult to arrange to meet Pollock. In fact, he was thrilled that a student from Harvard was interested in his work:
“On Sunday March 15, 1953, my fiancée and I paid a visit to Pollock in Springs [a hamlet in East Hampton, New York]. He and Lee Krasner were wonderfully hospitable and not unfriendly.”
Pollock was not an art historian and thought about his work in a different way. Nonetheless, what he had to say was quite interesting:
“I was too dumb to be able to ask him the kind of questions that he might have answered fully. But we did talk and he did volunteer some insights about “finish,” namely how he knew when a painting was done, comments not unlike the statement in the opening pages of your book [Tom and Jack: The Intertwined Lives of Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock]. Really just that the work was finished when he perceived no further work to do. Self-serving in a double-sense, but obviously the truth. The work knew best, so to speak.
“He got out all sorts of paintings which I photographed, though I was too polite to ask him to pose with any of them (it would have changed the relationship). I was also too stupid to ask him to allow me to photograph any drawings.
“I also asked him whether I could buy for my wife-to-be a small painting, and we picked one out. It was to be $300, but he had to ask his dealer Sidney Janis (whom I knew) first. Since it was a large pouring and I had a convertible, there was no sense in taking it with us, anyway.”
Today a large painting by Pollock would be worth more than a hundred million dollars. Back in 1953, you could treat them more casually:
“Pollock also offered to lend me, for my seminar presentation at the Fogg (which did not own a work by Pollock) a rolled-up canvas of 12 or 16 feet. I had to refuse, again because I was afraid of damaging it.
“They invited Judy and me to stay for supper. Lee said they had only two pork chops, and we agreed to split them … truly!! When I told all of this to Jasper Johns, he thought the pork chop incident the most entertaining and burst out with one of usual sudden bits of laughter.
“After dinner we went over to Alfonso Ossorio’s house to bask in the great works he had acquired. I remember so distinctly how one walked into the space of two Clyfford Stills, and so much more. It was a great day.”
Here comes the sad part, which shows that one should never think about one’s life in a sensible way, since if you do, you’ll probably make a big mistake:
“Later my fiancée asked me how could we spend $300 on a painting when we only had $600 in the bank?? So I never bought that Pollock, which ironically I found one day about 25 years ago in the collection of a Yale collector (who was probably about to sell it for a million or so).”
“I still have a little letter (with a couple of ink spots on it) from Pollock, that and memories. An invitation to one of his exhibitions is listed as a screen-print in the Pollock catalogue, but I dispute that the one I have is screen-printed (I have done a lot of work on screen-printing). My name has never come up in the Pollock literature, but I believe there was an oblique reference in one of the biographies to my visit—which had pleased Pollock, at least in advance.”
Interestingly, at some point, Field’s appreciation for Pollock grew dim:
“For years I was able to get inside Pollock’s paintings, but when I went to Kirk [Varnedoe]’s show at MoMA the magic has vanished. I loved the work, but there was some interiority that was missing for me.”
Because I wrote Tom and Jack, a study of the lifelong relationship between Benton and Pollock, I always am interested in whether a lover of Pollock’s work likes the very different work of Benton as well. For many, Benton is the anti-Christ, but Field wrote to me:
“Since my earliest days of interest in art (14 years old) Benton has always been one of my favorite artists, and this was long before I learned of his abstract works.”
I’ve come to believe that if you know you’ve missed a great opportunity, it shows you’ve gotten pretty close. Most of us have great opportunities all around us and never know that we’ve missed them. While he didn’t become rich from investing in a Pollock, Field, through his early interest in his work, nicely revealed the wonderful intuitive intelligence that has made him one of the truly outstanding art historians of our century.