Just one look at the success of the past “Saturday Night Live” reveals that caricature is still thriving in its mission to lampoon the rich, the famous and the powerful. The most recent show to open at the Yale University Art Gallery looks into the history of this ridiculing, ridiculous art form, from the 16th century to modern day.
“Seriously Funny: Caricature through the Centuries,” which opened to the public on Sept. 14, celebrates the YUAG’s recent acquisition of several notable 19th-century French caricatures. The exhibition’s goal is twofold: to place the prints in the larger context of Euro-American satirical culture and to restore public focus on this often-trivialized genre of art.
“I wanted works that still resonated, works that elicit a smile” said Rebecca Szantyr, the show’s curator. “They weren’t trivial in their time period, and they aren’t now either.”
Szantyr, who left the YUAG this week after spending three years as its Florence B. Selden Senior Fellow, proposed the show when she noticed a trend of important comical works saturating the YUAG’s print collection. Following approval in May, the Prints and Drawings Department put the show together on a short deadline. Although Szantyr initially intended for the show to be a collaborative effort, plans for several loans of artwork fell through. The 35 works on view comprise several loans from the Yale Center for British Art and from private collections, but are drawn principally from the YUAG’s own collection.
Visitors have warmly received the show and its documenting of caricature’s evolution over the past half-millennium.
“Caricature has historically been a great way of poking a needle into the prominent and overinflated,” said Ira Mickenberg, a visitor to the exhibition. “This exhibit has shown me many really good examples of it, and provided a historical context for those that I was already familiar with.”
The artists behind these works traverse space and time, from well-known names like Honoré Daumier and Pat Oliphant to the lesser-known Pieter Jansz and Enrique Chagoya. The works are organized within the exhibition space by geographical origin and time period. The earliest wall contemplates 16th-century Italian and Dutch works, demonstrating how this early period considered caricature as a product of the artist’s studio, not so distinct from the “high art” of academic painting. Rather, the practice aimed to train artists in creativity and personal styling by exaggerating physical features.
Next, the exhibition moves to 17th-century France and England. This period marked a shift in caricature from a loose, generalizing mockery of social types and customs to an individualized, if still gently ribbing, attack. This second wall features an 1804 lithograph by Pierre-Nolasque Bergeret, titled “Les musards de la rue du Coq,” which translates to “The Dawdlers of the Rue du Coq.” This work is an early incarnation of the medium, hand-colored by the artist. In this lithograph, the viewer can observe a crowd of lavishly dressed, absurdly styled pedestrians, who in turn observe the novelties for sale at a lithography shop.
The third wall features the 19th-century French caricatures that first inspired the show. Among them is the most rare of the works on view: Honoré Daumier’s 1831 “Gargantua,” a charade of Louis-Philippe I and his July Monarchy. The French king is shown as a monstrous, pear-shaped behemoth seated on a chaise percée, or commode, fed by the tax money of his impoverished subjects. Daumier’s print highlights caricature’s sharpened teeth: The artist was in fact fined and imprisoned for the work.
The exhibition turns, on its fourth and final wall, to the Americas and the present. Here, viewers may more readily identify Joseph McCarthy’s widow’s peak or Boris Yeltsin’s bulbous nose. A bronze sculpture by Pat Oliphant, one of four in the exhibition, shows Richard Nixon hunched on a horse — a twist on classic triumphal images of political leaders on horseback. Visitors to the show found the immediacy of these works appealing.
“I was lamenting the loss of caricature from the sixties and the seventies,” said Jim Stedronsky, a visitor to the exhibit.
The YUAG will hold three events to enrich discussion about the exhibition: a gallery talk by the curator, a lecture featuring David Sipress, a staff cartoonist for “The New Yorker” and a conversation between Szantyr and Anna Russell, a political cartoonist from the New Haven Independent.
The show will remain on view until Jan. 27, 2019.
Brianna Wu | firstname.lastname@example.org .