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.
November 7, 2011
I felt a tinge of sorrow when I learned that the collection of books and prints owned by the late Creekmore Fath would be going up for sale at the auctioneer Doyle New York on November 8. But the sale provides an occasion to write a brief tribute to a truly memorable American character, and one of the most important collectors of the great American artist Thomas Hart Benton.
I first met Creekmore in Kansas City back in the mid 80s, when I had just started doing research on Benton. He was a distinguished, courtly man whom I never saw without a bow tie; he was also the product of rural Texas, who spent much of his life in the rough-and-tumble of state politics. Though fascinated by gentility and eager to join the ranks of the elite, he was also the champion of the poor and dispossessed and an early, ardent champion of civil rights. Like America itself, his personality was the synthesis of different constituencies, some of them in harmony, others discretely at odds with each other.
The bewilderingly different sides of Creekmore’s personality were expressed by the house’s long tunnel of a library, filled with books that mirrored his various enthusiasms, including American political history, the Bloomsbury group and its offshoots (he had a notable collection of letters from D. H. Lawrence), and American literature (he had innumerable first editions, many of them signed, by writers ranging from Sinclair Lewis to Henry Miller).
Surely the highlight was the collection of Benton prints—the most complete in private hands. Benton was the unapologetic artist of the American heartland, a figure who, like Creekmore himself, bridged traditional boundaries. Creekmore’s collection will be dispersed, but his catalogue raisonne of Benton’s prints remains one of the most remarkable books in the American field.
Born in Oklahoma, Creekmore Fath grew up in Cisco and Fort Worth, Texas, and in 1931 his family moved to Austin, so he could attend the university there. After getting a law degree, Creekmore practiced law in Austin for about a year, then went to Washington as acting counsel to a congressional subcommittee investigating the plight of migrant farm workers. He went on to serve in a variety of legal posts in Washington, including a stint with Eleanor Roosevelt in the White House, and he returned to Texas in 1947 after marrying Adele Hay, the granddaughter of McKinley’s Secretary of State, John Hay.
Creekmore ran for Congress, campaigning in a car with a canoe on top, which carried the slogan: “He paddles his own canoe.” As an FDR liberal democrat in a conservative state, he was paddling upstream, and was soundly defeated. He helped Lyndon Johnson win the 1948 Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate by defeating former Texas Governor Coke Stevenson, by 87 votes. During McGovern’s failed presidential run in 1972, Creekmore became friendly with an eager young organizer in his twenties, Bill Clinton; and years later, on the occasion of Creekmore’s 80th birthday, he was rewarded with a sleepover in the Lincoln bedroom of the White House. He died in 2009 at age 93.
For some reason, Creekmore was a born collector. Book and art collecting were part of his being. As he once wrote: “The desire to collect, and the pleasure derived from each acquisition, are as exciting and compelling as passionate love.” He got started early. As he once recalled:
My first venture at collecting art took place at the age of twelve, as the result of an advertisement in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. For the sum of one dollar I acquired ‘genuine reproductions’ of three of Rembrandt’s greatest etchings: Dr. Faustus, The Three Trees, and The Mill. I still have them.
His Benton collection got its start in 1935 when he clipped a New York Times advertisement for Associated American Artists (AAA), which was offering prints by living American artists for five dollars each. Four years later, he ordered a print from AAA—Benton’s I Got a Gal on Sourwood Mountain—purchasing it with part of the fee that he received from the first law case that he tried.
The collection grew, particularly during the 1960s, when he was working as counsel to a Senate Committee chaired by Ralph Yarborough, whom he had helped elect. During this period he was often in New York and had many opportunities to purchase prints from the Weyhe bookstore, the Sylvan Cole Gallery and other sources. When he wrote to the New Britain Museum in New Britain, Connecticut, which was said to have a complete collection, he found that he had several which they did not know about. Before long he realized that he was compiling a catalogue raisonne—a complete listing of Benton’s prints. And this led him into correspondence with the artist himself.
Creekmore had a bit of bluster and definite sense of his own importance. But what’s remarkable about his catalogue raisonne of Benton’s prints is its modesty. Much art history is about the art historian rather than the art—almost as if the art historian were standing in front of the work of art, blocking the spectator’s view. Creekmore had the genius to step aside and let the artist speak for himself. His vision of the shape the book could take flashed into his mind during his very first exchange of letters with Benton, in January of 1965, when the artist wrote:
P. S. I assume you are a Texan. It might interest you to know that I am half Texan myself. My mother came from Waxahachie and I knew the country thereabouts quite well as a boy. My grandfather had a cotton farm a few miles from town. The lithograph Fire in the Barnyard represents an incident which occurred on an adjoining farm when I was around ten or eleven years old.
It occurred to Creekmore that Benton’s comments about his prints might be valuable. Indeed, the final catalogue has a brief listing of each print, its date, how many impressions were printed and perhaps a few additional comments, followed by a space in which he provided Benton’s remarks about each subject—in Benton’s handwriting. (Benton’s letters to Creekmore will be included in the Doyle sale.) Since Benton made prints that record the compositions of most of his major paintings, the result is one of the best records anywhere of Benton’s achievement. When I wrote a biography of Benton back in the 1980s I referred to it constantly; along with Benton’s autobiography, An Artist in America, it was my single most valuable printed source.
Creekmore’s collection of Benton was missing only four early prints, which exist in just one or two proofs. When I last spoke to Creekmore, he indicated that he was planning to donate his collection to the University of Texas at Austin. but for whatever reason this never occurred. It’s a shame in a way since there are surprisingly few large gatherings of Benton prints in public collections: those at New Britain, and those at the State Historical Society in Columbia, Missouri are the only two I can think of that come close to being comprehensive. But perhaps it’s also fitting that a passionate collector should disperse his holdings so that they can be acquired by other devoted art-lovers like himself.