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.
January 26, 2012
One of the most provocative exhibitions in the United States right now was organized by an institution that’s a bit off the beaten track: The Bone Creek Museum of Agrarian Art in David City, Nebraska. David City was the birthplace of the Regionalist painter Dale Nichols (1904-1995), and the Museum of Agrarian Art was founded just a little over three years ago when it acquired four paintings by him; it is still not an AAM accredited institution. This year the museum launched a major retrospective of the work of Dale Nichols, complete with a well-illustrated book-length catalog written by Amanda Mobley Guenther.
It’s impressive that such a small community has produced an ambitious exhibition and book of this scale, roughly on a par with those produced by America’s largest museums. More than that, the show shows the virtue of bringing new viewpoints into the discourse of art history, for seemingly without intending to do so—with seeming artlessness—the catalog explodes most of what we’ve been told about Regionalist American art of the 1930s and shows that we should take another look at what was actually going on.
Dale Nichols operated in a zone that was midway between “high art” of the sort exhibited in prestigious museums and calendar art and commercial illustration. He himself viewed his work and his calling in an extremely lofty light. He liked to think of himself as on a par with the great old masters, such as Caravaggio, and he also believed that he had special insights into the workings of the universe and thus was something of a prophet or seer. But Nichols also regularly worked in the sphere of practical commercial art, doing lettering and advertisements, and designing packaging. His paintings were regularly reproduced for advertising purposes on tin cans, plates and playing cards, by companies such as General Mills. In 1942 one of his winter scenes was even used for a U. S. postage stamp. Because of his close ties with the commercial world, some art critics would describe his work as kitsch.
While he did paint some other subjects, Nichols is best known for just one, which he painted in seemingly endless permutations: a red barn resting in a snowy field against an intensely blue sky, with a foreground containing figures engaged in traditional agrarian tasks, very often with a figure in a sleigh or wagon. It’s the sort of imagery one finds in the work of the 19th century American painter, George Henry Durie (1820-1863), although Dale Nichols handled the theme with a clarity of light and a simplicity of geometric shapes that’s more in the manner of Rockwell Kent (1882-1971), and it has a distinctly Art Deco feeling.
Nichols’s reputation reached its height quite early in his career, in the 1930s, the last decade when popular imagery of this sort also enjoyed the support of major art critics and museums. Then his reputation began a downhill slide. But recently his paintings have experienced something of a revival, if not among art historians at least among collectors, who have started paying large sums for his work.
The son of a farmer, Nichols performed back-breaking farm chores as a child and walked two miles to school. We don’t know how he decided to become an artist, but by the age of 20 he had landed in Chicago, where he attended the Chicago Academy of Art. Like many artists, he was not easy to teach, and his career as a student lasted only two months, though by the time it ended he had assembled a portfolio of his work and landed a job in an advertising agency, where his initial specialty was fine lettering. During his 15 years in the Chicago advertising business he seems to have worked in every possible angle of the trade, from lettering and illustration to package design.
Around 1933 he decided to embark on a career as a painter, and almost instantly he settled on the sort of red barn subject matter. In fact, he had been painting for less than a year when he produced what is still his best known work of art, End of the Hunt, 1934, which won an award from the Art Institute of Chicago and which was purchased in 1939 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York—then as now the most important museum in the United States—where it remains today.
For a few years, Nichols was viewed as one of the leading painters in America, a major figure of the Regionalist movement: in 1939, a dean at the University of Illinois declared that he “has already achieved a standing in art circles comparable with that of John Steuart Curry, Grant Wood, and Thomas Benton.” But Nichols’s career began to slip at that point, in part because Regionalism began to slip out of favor, and in part because the difficulties of his personal life made it difficult for him to settle down: Over the course of his career he had five marriages, some of them so brief their exact date and the full name of his partner is not known.
In the 1930s his center of his activity was Chicago, but in 1940 he moved to Arizona, where he adopted a cowboy persona, and supported himself as an art teacher. In 1948, he purchased about half the buildings in the town of Tubac, Arizona, to use as a campus for an art school that he named for himself, but this over-extended his resources and the venture lasted for only about a year. Throughout the 1950s he seems to have been in constant financial difficulties, and he became a roaming wanderer, moving from Brownsville, Texas, to New Orleans, to Marquette, Michigan, back to New Orleans, and finally to Biloxi, where he lived until 1960s, at one point making his home in a small yacht named Nefertiti harbored along the Wolf River. Yet somehow, no matter how down-and-out he might be, he never lost his immaculate look or sense of self-assurance. Photographs of him posing beside his boat might almost be confused for fashion illustrations.
In 1960 he moved to Guatemala, married a native woman, and supported himself in large part by making rubbings and drawings of Maya sculpture, which he sold both to tourists and to American archeology museums. During this period he founded a new intellectual specialty, which he called Psycho Symbolic Investigation Archeology, and wrote books with titles such as Pyramid Text of the Ancient Maya and Magnificent Mystery Tikal. These set forth his belief that he had discovered the secret code of ancient Maya writing and art: a sort of astrology based on the number nine, the day of birth, and the positioning of the sun and other stars and planets. He proposed that it would be applied to modern life as well, and created striking diagrams to assist modern users of his system. It’s not a document that Maya scholars take seriously.
After an earthquake in Guatemala disrupted life there, he became mobile again. In his later years he separated from his wife and moved repeatedly back and forth among California, Alaska and Nevada, where he attempted to start an art school. By the end of his life he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease; he died of prostate cancer in 1997 in Sedona, Arizona.
In the course of these moves, Nichols turned for subject matter to the region where he was living at the time. In Arizona he painted scenes of the Southwest; in Guatemala he painted tropical jungle scenes. But throughout his life he continued to paint scenes of red barns in snow in a Nebraska-like setting, and to fiercely insist that he was the leading artist of Nebraska, a claim that often put him in conflict with other artists. His late barn scenes, executed in the 1960s, or even later, are almost indistinguishable from the first one, painted in 1934.
To a large degree his ideas about art were formed while working in print shops and advertising agencies in Chicago. Notably, he worked for a time for the printer and publisher R. R. Donnelly, which in 1930 published what has sometimes been described as the greatest American illustrated book: Rockwell Kent’s edition of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. To his credit, Nichols seems to have recognized that Kent’s work had a strength and nobility that stood head-and-shoulders above anything else being produced around him. While sometimes responsive to other influences (such as the work of another very talented illustrator, Maynard Dixon), to a large degree Nichols modeled everything he did afterwards on Kent’s style. Indeed, in the summer of 1937 Nichols even made a trip to Alaska in emulation of Kent, who had spent a year there in 1918-19. The most notable traits of Nichols’ work—the clean lines, the clear sense of light and dark, the wonderful sense of design and proportion—are based on Kent.
For decades Regionalism has been dismissed as an essentially realistic, documentary mode of creating art, which consequently lacks any significant expressive or esthetic content. To cite phrases that are often used, it is “mere realism” or “conventional realism.”
In her catalog, Guenther shows that this assumption is completely incorrect as applied to the art of Dale Nichols. Actually, Nichols himself saw his art in an entirely different light. In a letter to his niece Ruth (the daughter of his brother Floyd) he stated: “Hell, Ruth, I’ve never painted a realistic painting in my life.” Nichols attributed the power of his art to what he called “applied psychology.” What he meant by this is sometimes difficult to figure out, but loosely speaking it seems to have meant that he saw his paintings as “symbolic.” His goal was to create forms filled with symbolism which would connect with the deepest truths of human existence, whether the workings of the universe or the inner mysteries of the Freudian unconscious.
Nichols’s paintings were not copies of any actual scene. He started with a set of geometric elements, which he moved around as if they were children’s blocks until he found the formal arrangement that satisfied him As he explained, in his idiosyncratic fashion, which sometimes takes more than one reading to understand:
I first compose my painting in an euphonious arrangement of rect-hedrons, tetrahedrons and spheroids, then relieve the resultant static effect by opposing line, adding textures, symbolic abstractions and certain fragmentations (following Freudian interpretations) in colors which relate to preconceived mood.
The word “rect-hedron,” of course, is a Nichols coinage. Incidentally, the above quotation, and the quote blocks that follow, all come from Guenther’s fine catalogue, one of whose best features is that it, in turn, quotes extensively and directly from Nichols’ writings.
Next, for Nichols, after this composing of forms, came the placement of a source of light—generally the sun. Central to his belief system was a devotion to “our galaxy of stars (of which our sun is one” which “forms the cosmic ocean of radiant energy on earth.” He believed that the unifying power of light was what filled his paintings with harmony and spiritual truth.
Of course he did eventually transform his geometric compositions into scenes that looked like red barns and other objects. But when he transformed his geometric blocks into “realistic” objects, he tried to paint them abstractly, in a way which expressed their inner reality, their spiritual essence. Thus, for example, when he painted a tree he tried to express the way in which it grows. And then he tried to go even further. He tried to connect with the deepest levels of the human brain. As he explained in a letter to his niece:
Now, what else can the tree do? Well, it can be forced into what is called a Freudian form to touch a “button” in the brain and make us feel again the warmth and security of mother: This extra liberty taken in the form of anything is called poetry.
In fact, beauty for Nichols was fundamentally an attribute of desire. He was fond of quoting the 17th century Jewish mystic, Baruch Spinoza: “We do not desire a thing because it is beautiful, but it is called beautiful if we desire it.” And for an understanding of desire, Nichols turned to a field of knowledge that was in active ferment in this period, Freudian psychology, with its focus on the unconscious, the subconscious and sexual desire.
Nichols’s interest in psychology appears to have been an outgrowth of his involvement with advertising. It was in this period that advertisers first became aware that subliminal, subconscious messages could play a major role in stimulating sales, particularly messages with a sexual content. Nichols believed that we respond to every object symbolically, that we see it in terms of metaphors, and in terms of the projections of our desire. The skillful artist should exploit this fact. Thus:
For example, the mountain is the most dramatic shape encountered by man. Man looks up to this pinnacled pile of rocks and feels its overwhelming power. He is conscious of its greatness over himself. It becomes a symbol of strength and stability. The basic shape of a mountain is triangular. To build the elements of a picture into a triangle is to put into the painting the awe-inspiring strength and stability of the mountain.
Seen in this light, a Nichols painting is the symbolic expression of human desire and of man’s relationship to the cosmic forces of nature. For Nichols his End of the Hunt of 1934 was not a painting of barns and snowy fields so much as it was an exploration of the mystical union of the male and female essence:
Foundations of building are at eye level for cathedral effect. Female curves in snowbanks, and other female symbols, especially in tracks and soft lines of snow on roofs and general shapes of trees, in the trees (buildings, of course, are also female) these give the charm of female appeal which is the strength of women. Also gives the picture gentle feeling of mother. The vertical lines of the man and his rabbit, including the trunks of the trees, are the strength of men, which is the theory of Havelock Ellis, English psychologist (studies the psychology of sex). Other gender symbols mentioned are Freudian. Also people tend to enjoy excavations, so I selected a farmyard with a hollow near the barn.
Of course, Nichols may have been misguided in his understanding of his art and of the reasons it had popular appeal. But then again, could it be that the strange appeal of a Nichols painting lies at this deeper level of expression?
Whatever one thinks of his art, the impulses that led him to make a painting are clearly very different from those which lead painters to create “mere realism”—they’re something much stranger. And this raises the larger question of whether Regionalism as a movement—the art of figures like Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood—can accurately be dismissed as “mere realism,” or whether it’s also something more complicated and peculiar.