By John Dorfman
The Met presents a trove of little-seen gems of humorous printmaking.
When the curators at the Metropolitan Museum’s department of prints and drawings were planning an exhibition of satirical prints and caricatures and decided to call it “Infinite Jest,” they weren’t even aware that they were appropriating was the title of a best-selling novel by the late David Foster Wallace. Immersed in the world of 18th- and 19th-century printmaking, they took the phrase from the caption of a Civil War-era lithograph lampooning Abraham Lincoln. Made by Justin Howard in 1864, it refers to the presidential campaign of former Union general George McClellan, who is depicted holding up and addressing the disembodied head of his rival Lincoln. The implication—as obvious to viewers then as it is opaque to us now—was that Lincoln was political dead meat because he had gaffed by making inappropriate jokes about Union soldiers killed in battle (that was actually an untrue rumor spread by a Democratic New York newspaper).
Of course, the Met, Wallace and Howard all borrowed the phrase “Infinite Jest” from the same source—Shakespeare’s Hamlet, who uses it during the famous speech in which he contemplates the skull of “poor Yorick”—which goes to show that borrowing and appropriation have always been essential to humor. And the Lincoln print reminds us of another truth that we know well, even if we don’t always choose to admit it: There are no inappropriate jokes. Both points are integral to the Met exhibition (full title, “Infinite Jest: Satire and Caricature from Leonardo to Levine”), which opened last month and runs through March 4. It brings together some 160 prints, mostly from the Met’s collection, including some never-before-exhibited sheets known only to specialists. Comprehensive though it is, the show is more than a historical survey; it’s a reflection on the nature of visual humor.
“Infinite Jest” was almost five years in the making. “We knew we had a good collection of caricatures, especially by Thomas Rowlandson, of which we had around 200 examples,” many of which had been acquired from a British dealer decades ago and never catalogued, recalls associate curator Constance McPhee. “It was obvious that we could do a show that included both prints and drawings, English and Italian—and we knew we had some French examples, as well, to do with the French Revolution, which was first time when people were able to publish caricatures in France.” At first McPhee and curator Nadine Orenstein intended to organize the show chronologically, but, she says, “it became obvious that to do it that way was more of a straitjacket. So we switched to a thematic approach, asking, what is the visual language of caricature?”
As McPhee explains it, caricature—the exaggeration or distortion of form, especially the human form—arose in reaction to the idea of perfection: “When you have the concept of the ideal, then it’s natural to mock it, to show the grotesque or non-ideal.” Artists probably always found it difficult or impossible to resist the impulse, even if they only indulged it on the sly. The earliest example in the exhibition is by Leonardo, a circa 1490 drawing of a man with an exaggerated profile. In the 17th century the Carracci developed a theory of caricature, but they still treated their own caricatures basically as in-jokes rather than finished works of art. A century later Bernini made caricatures for private circulation—though in the his case “private” could include the Pope and Louis XIV.
It was in the second half of the 18th century that caricature really took off as a public art form, when it merged with political satire in England and France under conditions of relative freedom of speech. “You can’t have effective satire if you have too strict censorship,” observes McPhee. “But some censorship is good because it motivates artists to find ways to get around the rules.” Out of this creative tension came the golden age of caricature and satire, in which masters like James Gillray, George Cruikshank, William Hogarth and Rowlandson flourished, and later Goya and Daumier. By the mid-19th century, says McPhee, caricature and satire had come to be taken quite seriously, artistically speaking. Unlike newspaper cartoon, they were “intended to be saved by being mounted on a screen, pasted on the wall or kept in albums. Daumier’s prints were issued in magazines, but the finer versions didn’t have print on the backs because they were intended to the cut out and framed.”
The idea of borrowing and repetition runs through the show. Each generation of artists tends to reiterate its predecessors, with modifications. Beyond simple cultural influence, there is a deep reason for that. In order for a thing to be humorous, it has to play on elements that are so deeply ingrained in us that recognition of the incongruity is instant and unmediated by thought. If you have to explain a joke, it’s not funny. With visual humor, the references are bound to be images that have been imprinted on us by long familiarity, images from our culture’s recent and not-so-recent past. And there’s a visceral aspect, too. “The purest form of visual humor,” says McPhee, “has to have some base in how we see the world. Our understanding of visual beauty can be distorted and go the other way. We all have fears of losing control and looking foolish, so it’s funny seeing people do that.”
The most recent print in the show is The Headache: A Print After George Cruikshank, from 2010, by the Mexican-American artist Enrique Chagoya. Here we have an image from the golden age of satirical printmaking, updated by grafting President Obama’s head onto an 18th-century body in a symbolic representation of today’s health-care worries. Here we have distortion, reiteration, appropriation…and homage. It’s the whole show wrapped up in one picture.
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