Laughing Matter

I n Seriously Funny: Caricature through the Centuries, an exhibition organized by Rebecca Szantyr at the Yale University Art Gallery, there’s the beanpole-skinny man of An Artist at the French Academy in Rome(?) (ca. 1754), a long, stiff braid riding the back of his jacket and an even longer sword at his hip. And there’s his opposite: the bloated King Louis-Philippe of Gargantua (1831), ingesting tax payments via a plank propped in his open mouth. (Artist Honoré Daumier was fined and jailed for it.) There’s also the George H.W. Bush of Ain’t Boris a Doll? (1991), whose nose is as long as his cleft chin, each sticking out like a duck bill.

But ultimately, it’s the presence of earnest moral and political messages, not humorously exaggerated body parts, that defines Seriously Funny’s caricatures. Inspired by the acquisition of “several important 19th-century French satirical lithographs,” the show brings together a small but wide-ranging collection of European and American comedic works from the 16th to the 21st century. And though their “jocularity” was “often mistaken for triviality,” the exhibition argues that these etchings, lithographs, drawings, paintings and even sculptures are no less artful than “the large and imposing academic easel paintings that artists were trained to emulate.”

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Jean-Marie Zeitouni leads the Yale Philharmonia

The ominous caricature of an instantly recognizable Richard Nixon, with his bulbous nose, fleshy neck and wrinkled forehead, surely required a keen artist’s eye and hand to capture. One finger to his lips, Nixon lets us know he’s including us—even implicating us—in a secret as he lifts his shirt to reveal a map of Vietnam. Penned by illustrator David Levine in 1970, My Operation II refers to covert government operations “with the goal of disrupting the Ho Chi Minh Trail,” an important supply network. “Nixon’s bombing of these areas as part of the campaigns may have slowed the flow of supplies and troops, but it also led to further human tragedy and even more political instability in Southeast Asia,” the object label argues.

While most viewers will be familiar with Nixon and Bush, the contexts for other caricatures in the exhibition are less obvious. Even so, many are easy enough to read. In Charles-Joseph Traviès’s Hercule vainqueur (Hercules Triumphant, 1834), a corpulent, towering King Louis-Philippe stands next to a burning village with a bomb-filled hat behind his back.

Other works are more obscure. War Bulletin. Latest News. Another Brewery Captured by the English Syndicate (1889) by the renowned American political cartoonist Thomas Nast depicts a bartender representing the U.S. State Department shrugging apologetically to his customer, a German soldier in long overcoat and spiked helmet, who shrugs back at him. Above them on a shelf is King John, glass raised high, foot on the head of a crowned figure. “Lager bier is English now you know!” reads a seal behind him. The barkeep, we’re told in the label, is Secretary of State James G. Blaine, and the soldier Otto von Bismarck, both “lamenting” the fact that “British companies spent over $90 million buying and consolidating breweries in the United States, many of which had been founded by German immigrants.”

While public figures have been a favorite target since the 18th century, according to the exhibition, another noticeable quality of many of the exhibition’s works is the use of animals. Some of these efforts are light-hearted, as in Three Monkeys Imitating the Laocoön (or Caricature of the Laocoön), a 1545 cartoon that reportedly mocked the outsized adoration of a newly discovered ancient sculpture. Others are heavier. A hand-colored 1829 lithograph by J. J. Grandville could be an illustration from a children’s book in which creatures resembling rats and a peacock converse at a construction site. But it’s slightly alarming to note these animals have human arms and hands. Their concerns are human as well, and so universal they continue to resonate today. The title says it all: T’as raison Gauthier; c’est encore nous qui payent les bels hôtels q’nous font pour eux (You’re Right, Gauthier; It’s We Who Always Have to Pay for the Fine Townhouses We Build for Them).

Perhaps the most arresting piece in Seriously Funny is the one that most breaks the mold, setting aside pen and paper for bronze sculpture. The trope of a soldier on horseback is repurposed here, but this is no memorial to victory. The horse, underfed and straining its neck away from its rider, is—unlike the other animals on display—just a horse, and the figure it carries is proportioned like an ordinary man. Clutching an overcoat around his hunched body, he wears a Napoleonic hat. But move closer and you’ll see, once again, the familiar, slightly exaggerated face of Richard Nixon. Patrick Bruce Oliphant’s Nixon on Horseback (1985) shows the disgraced leader shut out in the cold, without even a bridle and reins to guide his horse.

Not every piece in Seriously Funny carries quite that much weight. The delightful Réunion de 35 têtes diverses (Gathering of 35 Different Heads, ca. 1825-30) is just that: a meeting of heads in what looks like an unruly family portrait. Some are strung long as if in a funhouse mirror, others are out of scale (a baby’s head is the same size as the adults’), still others pull silly, recognizable expressions.

Lest we should imagine ourselves immune to being caricatured, we need only pause before Pierre-Nolasque Bergeret’s Les musards de la rue du Coq (The Dawdlers of the Rue du Coq). Most of its colorful figures present us with their backs. The ladies hitch up their skirts, and one long-legged fellow with a wide stance seems to monitor the crowd as they lean to gawk through a shop window. Reportedly one of the first lithographs made in France, circa 1804, its oglers are looking at caricatures in a publisher’s display window. They’re the precursors to us, visiting this exhibition or, more aptly, glued to our screens, both clamoring to be the first to see and wanting to be seen. The tableau is seriously funny—because it rings oh so seriously true.

Seriously Funny: Caricature through the Centuries
Yale University Art Gallery – 1111 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
Tues-Wed 10am-5pm, Thurs 10am-8pm, Fri 10am-5pm, Sat-Sun 11am-5pm through January 27, 2019
(203) 432-0600…

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is a writer and communications pro whose perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the Green and a coffee milkshake. She posts twice-weekly content for book clubs in her Substack newsletter, Better Book Clubs.

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