The Lost Art of the Caricature

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Who hasn’t at some point found himself in a rousing debate about whether James Gillray or Thomas Nast is the father of political cartooning? Or whether David Levine or Al Hirschfeld is the preeminent American caricaturist in the postwar era? If you haven’t, you may know a woman’s caress, which I would like to ask you about.

But most of us share a ostracizing passion for the history of lithographic visual satire, and have visited the Met’s new exhibit of the acerbically grotesque, “Infinite Jest: Caricature from Leonardo to Levine.” The suggested donation to the Met is $25, but if you’re like me and are saving up for an Honoré Daumier print, you can just donate a piece of expired deli meat.

Today we have The Daily Show, Bill Maher, and terrible late night monologues, but in old timey times, social and political satire often took the form of caricatures and drawings. In 19th century England, people would camp outside print shops for Gillray’s latest caricature to drop. And this is before Gore-tex knickers were invented. The best satirical prints and political cartoons of the day often came to define the objects of their gaze and affect public opinion in a way unimaginable in today’s fractured, demographically-targeted media. Did you know that Napoleon was actually of average height and that Gillray’s merciless portrayals of him helped cement the misconception that he was pint-sized? Can Jon Stewart — who probably has a healthy Napoleonic complex — make people think that ruthless French generals are shorter than they actually are? Beyond his powers I say.

Despite, or because of, the historical significance of artists like Nast and Gillray, their heavy-handed visual puns can be a bit much, and some of the less politically minded work on display in the exhibit is more humorous — notably that of Louis-Léopold Boilly, who seemed to have been a significant “fine” artist as well, seeing as though his Wikipedia entry is nearly a page long (almost as long as the entry for the Teapot Dome Scandal, but shorter than CHiPs alumnus Erik Estrada). Boilly was less concerned with caricaturing political figures and more into the human face’s potential for gnarl. One of the highlights of the exhibit is Boilly’s Les Amateurs De Tableaux (The Art Connoisseurs). It portrays a bunch of bulbous-faced, ornery old dudes regarding a piece of art we can’t see. Holding up bifocals and magnifying glasses, they’re puckering their lumpy, twisted faces as if trying to conjure significance. They’re hideous and beautiful, like Dennis Rodman or a decaying pumpkin. It’s a great little barb directed at the pretense involved in the consumption of visual art — something most of the artists on display here had little use for.

Indeed, the show is dominated by artists like Daumier and Gillray, political pranksters who sought to direct the public towards the flabby corruption of power. Gillray’s famous depiction of Napoleon literally carving up the world, The Plum Pudding in Danger, is an obvious pun, but back then it probably had people in fits: “Look! It’s as if to him, the world is a strange British Christmas dessert to be carved up! And he is mighty hungry it seems!” I can see myself getting caught up in that if I lived in a world where invasions even happened to countries with internet. Daumier’s similarly relentless lampooning of the French king Louis Philippe, evinced in various caricatures where the “Citizen King” resembled a pear, got the artist thrown in the clink. I’m imagining a great conversation with his cellmate: “What are you in for?” “Oh, you know, monarchal caricature.”

David Levine and Al Hirschfeld, both represented here, if cursorily, are the contemporary American masters of caricature as we have come to know the form. Whereas Daumier and Gillray, along with their American successor Thomas Nast, rallied public opinion, these artists mostly drew authors and Broadway casts in the pages of bourgeois magazines. Levine did give the world some fantastic politically caustic drawings, though, including a great one of an ursine Henry Kissinger boning a globe-headed woman while covered in an American flag. But usually Levine’s humor embodied more of a modern irony than the bluntly contentious European caricaturists of the 19th century. One of his drawings of Woody Allen brings out a coy sadness by imagining him as a sort of hipsterized willow tree. Levine drew LBJ’s nose like a protuberant seaplane pontoon and Spiro Agnew’s neck, clearly a continual muse, often looked like a sort of built-in balaclava. Although Levine did publish a drawing of Putin in a king’s robe and somehow did not end up on a Siberian chain gang, he didn’t exactly humiliate any despotic leaders. Still, he did provide the choir with galvanizing visual aid as they were preached to in the pages of the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books.

It’s too bad the caricature is now relegated to Bar Mitzvah novelty and the political cartoon about as culturally relevant as, say, the caricature. There are plenty of public figures who are calling out to be frozen in the grotesque, drawn with literally enormous heads, and skewered via pears, plums, or whatever seemingly benign fruit can become a tool of destruction in the hands of a visual satirist.

Jake Tuck writes screenplays and other things. He is known to be a man for all seasons.