Life & Style
Tackling Difficult Conversations With Humor, Art
Three Monkeys Imitating the Laocoön (or Caricature of the Laocoön), ca. 1545. Niccolò Boldrini, after Titian (Tiziano Vecellio). Woodcut. Yale University Art Gallery, Everett V. Meeks, b.a. 1901, Fund )
Caricature of a Man Wearing a Large Hat, ca. 1630–40. Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri). Pen and brown ink. Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of Edmund P. Pillsbury, b.a. 1965 )
Quast, A Quack at Work in a Barn, ca. 1635. Pieter Jansz. Oil on panel. Lent by Dr. and Mrs. Herbert Schaefer )
An Artist at the French Academy in Rome(?), no. 13 in the series Recueil de caricatures (Collection of Caricatures), ca. 1754. Ange-Laurent de La Live de Jully, after Jacques-François-Joseph Saly. Etching. Yale University Art Gallery, Everett V. Meeks, b.a. 1901, Fund )
Monstrous Craws, at a New Coalition Feast, 1787. James Gillray. Hand-colored etching. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, inv. no. B1981.25.966 )
Les musards de la rue du Coq (The Dawdlers of the Rue du Coq), ca. 1804. Pierre-Nolasque Bergeret. Hand-colored lithograph. Yale University Art Gallery, Everett V. Meeks, b.a. 1901, Fund )
Gargantua, 1831. Honoré Daumier. Lithograph. Yale University Art Gallery, Everett V. Meeks, b.a. 1901, Fund )
Jean-Marie Fruchard: Le dégoût personnifié (Disgust Personified), from the series Célébrités du juste milieu, modeled ca. 1833, cast 1929–50. Honoré Daumier. Bronze. Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of Mr. Rufus Stillman, Class of 1943, and Mrs. Stillman )
Ain’t Boris a Doll?, June 1991. Patrick Bruce Oliphant. India ink. Yale University Art Gallery, Janet and Simeon Braguin Fund. Courtesy of Susan Conway Gallery, Santa Fe, in honor of the artist )
Liberty Club on the Road, from the series Liberty Club, 2005. Enrique Chagoya. Hard-ground etching, spit bite, and aquatint on Gampi chine collé. Yale University Art Gallery, Janet and Simeon Braguin Fund. © Enrique Chagoya. Image courtesy of George Adams Gallery, New York )
In a small gallery on the fourth floor of the Yale University Art Gallery, visitors on a recent weekend afternoon giggled, elbowed each other, pointed, guffawed, and gasped in recognition as they examined the works in the room.
In fact, humor is central to 35 works on display through Sunday, Jan. 27 as part of Seriously Funny: Caricature through the Centuries, organized by Rebecca Szantyr, the former Florence B. Selden Senior Fellow, Department of Prints and Drawings at the Yale University Art Gallery (YUAG). And the exhibit—which includes prints, drawings, paintings, and sculpture from the 16th through the 21st century—goes beyond just funny, Szantyr says. There is a common thread running throughout the centuries.
“Throughout time, it [caricature] has been used to enact difficult conversations,” she says.
The works range from a woodcut, ca. 1545, by Italian engraver Niccolo Boldrini, entitled Three Monkeys Imitating the Laocoön, which pokes fun at the herd mentality of artists who imitate one another, to an Enrique Chagoya etching, Liberty Club on the Road, 2005, created in response to the second Iraq war.
“The war was still ongoing, and this is a response to [President] G.W. Bush, and his ‘Mission Accomplished’ speech and banner,” in May 2003, she says. Bush “had cultivated an image as a Texan cowboy and lone ranger.”
But, instead of a heroic figure from the mythic West, the artist portrays President Bush as a pudgy Humpty Dumpty being hauled around in a wagon, a theme drawn from, and in sharp contrast to, triumphal, processional prints of the early Renaissance.
“There is also a banner, which I really love, on the upper left corner, that says in the Hawaiian language, ‘Mommy and I are going on a little trip,’ which is a reference to his privileged upbringing,” she notes. “That is something someone who had a privileged upbringing would say.”
Then there is the fact that President Bush is, literally, an egg.
“And he’s not sitting upright,” Szantyr says. “That shows us how precarious all of this is, like an eggshell, and how tensile this concept of liberty is.”
A Big Coup
Szantyr has long been interested in caricature, even though it’s work that is not often recognized in the larger canon of art of the kind a visitor might find in the rest of YUAG.
“It’s often put off to one side,” she says. “But it can be a very nice antidote to some of the more serious work.”
The decision to launch this particular display was prompted in part by some recent acquisitions, including Honoré Daumier lithograph, Gargantua, 1831, which is one of the highlights of the visit.
“It was a really big coup when we purchased it,” says Szantyr.
Here’s why: Daumier was poking fun, and making a political point about, Louis-Philippe I, who had just ascended to the throne of France in 1830, a politically tumultuous time. Daumier portrayed the reigning monarch as a character out of 16th century novels penned by François Rabelais, risqué works that in and of themselves were censored when they were published. Gargantua, as portrayed in Rabelais’ novels, is hilariously and tragically crude, vulgar, obscene.
Daumier’s lithograph shows King Louis-Philippe I/Gargantua sitting on a commode while his fawning minions deliver overstuffed moneybags to his greedy maw, moneybags loaded with taxes collected from poor people.
“Another cluster of ministers rushes out of the legislative building in the background to greedily collect the by-products of Louis-Philippe’s ‘digestion’: prefectures, nominations of peers, and military commissions for his supporters,” says a description of the work in the YUAG newsletter.
For that work, Daumier, his publisher, and his printer all were fined. The publisher and the printer paid the fine, avoiding prison, but Daumier had to both pay the fine and go to prison.
“Part of that ruling is that, at the time, it was seen as something of a crime against the king, the work was critical both of his person and his government,” Szantyr says. “The censors came and seized the rest of the impressions and ordered the stones to be destroyed. So this one is one of only four impressions in public collections in the United States.”
It was acquired in 2016, and this is the first time it’s been on display in an exhibit.
Szantyr says she thinks caricature is so rarely displayed in art galleries because sometimes it is considered something less than high art. In fact, caricature is sometimes associated with street artists cranking out funny pictures, and here it is, as a body of work, being displayed amidst YUAG’s extraordinary collections of Mesopotamian antiquities, African treasures, Meso-American works, the Austronesian collection, and the work of modern and contemporary artist including Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Wassily Kandinsky.
“Well, exactly,” Szantyr says. “Because of its levity, it is sometimes seen as trivial. But we see merit in these artworks, and in examining how they started and how they evolved.”
She says some of the early works content themselves with a mocking exploration and exaggeration of artistic ideals of the time, such as Boldrini’s work exaggerating flaws, highlighting large noses, and matching them to someone’s hat, perhaps.
“They don’t start to get too political until the second half of the 18th century,” Szantyr says.
“And that is definitely a trajectory I choose to take in the show,” she says. “We see that, over time, in times of unrest, social change or political change or unease about political situations, this humor becomes a lens. It allows us to point out things we are not happy with, without broaching them directly.”
Works in this category include James Gillray’s hand-colored etching, Monstrous Craws, at a New Coalition Feast, 1787, which features England’s Queen Charlotte; George, Prince of Wales; and King George II—the royal family—as sideshow freaks with craws, the appendages birds and rodents use to store extra food. This etching was done at a time when the Prince of Wales, the future king, was horribly in debt, a bad habit he fueled with his access to parliamentary grants that raised his income.
The British heads of state had a much better attitude about being the butt of a joke, when compared to Louis-Philippe.
The British heads of state, in this case, “actually collected these works,” Szantyr says. “If they were out of town when they were released, they’d have members of the court buy them...I wonder if there is something to the notion that they just accepted how this is, that this is part of what it means to be a monarch. They realized they could not escape it and it was a fashionable past-time. But it cut a little too close to the bone for Louis-Philippe.”
The Message, The Medium
But if the monarchs’ reaction was in part to the message, it may have also been, in part, to the medium.
“Gillray’s etchings, on a copper plate, were considered luxury items. The average man could not collect them. They were collected at court. So people consumed them that way. Or maybe dealers would rent out a portfolio. So people could rent them and take them home, but only for a night.”
And then, lithographs happened.
In the late 1700s, a playwright in Germany discovered he could roll ink onto a marked-up limestone slab and make impressions off of it. Lithography, with its ability to make unlimited prints for the masses, was born.
“The first few years it was a little dicey, technically speaking, but by the 1820s it was full steam ahead,” Szantyr says.
So that means Daumier’s Gargantua message spread much further than Gillray’s Monstrous Craws, simply because of the medium.
“The petite bourgeoisie [in France in the mid 1800s] could get [images like Gargantua] in weekly journals, and standalone prints, and see them displayed in windows,” she says, “and because so many people can access it and hang them up in their houses, it becomes an exercise in dissent to laugh at the king.”
While Daumier suffered for his work, and was fined multiple times and thrown into prison, he also helped pave the way for the satirical artists of today, Szantyr says. “He helped move the line of what is acceptable and what is not.”
Visitors to the exhibit will be able to enjoy the fruit of his act of dissent by viewing works like Patrick Bruce Oliphant’s poignant bronze Nixon on Horseback, 1985 and Oliphant’s India ink print, Ain’t Boris a Doll?, June 1991.
Szantyr says the latter work will resonate for those who might be following current politics.
“Yeltsin [the first president of the Russian Federation] is on the White House steps,” she says. “At the time, we don’t know what diplomacy with Russia will look like. We’re still figuring that out.”
The Yale University Art Gallery, 1111 Chapel Street, New Haven, is free and open to the public Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursdays until 8 p.m. in September through June; and Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. It is closed Mondays and Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day.