The Caricaturist and His Art -A pointed Weapon that in the Hands of an Honest Man Keeps the Balance for the Good, the True, and the Pompous
History is full of caricatures, for humor is as old as man. The earliest-known representation of the human form, the Venus de Willendorf, was certainly conceived by the cavemen in spirit of caricature and not to commemorate some esoteric religious rite as the scientists would have us believe. Everyone likes to laugh and there is no reason to suppose that the cavemen shared our cultural tradition that everything which is either our cultural tradition that a dubious moral value. The art of Egypt, the ancient Orient, Greek vase-painting, Art of Ancient America, and even the religious art of the Middle Ages, all abound in personal caricatures. Leonardo da Vinci, Hans and Lucas Cranach, Pieter Brueghel, and Holbein applied their technical skill as drafts men to caricature. The works of Callot, Hogarth, Daumier, and Toulouse de Lautrec are testimonials to the heights of artistry to which caricature can attain.
Caricature has often been a dangerous and devastating weapon for the correction of political and social evils. Holbein and the Cranachs, father and son, directed their satire against the pomp of the Church of their time. Daumier and his fellow artists, Philipon and Gavarni, used their artistic abilities to expose the hypocrisy and abuses of the reign of Louis Philippe. Philipon’s famous caricatures of that monarch, demonstrating his majesty’s, resemblance to a pear, made the bourgeois king so ridiculous that it played a large part in undermining his prestige and causing his subsequent downfall. The French sympathizers with the Boers ruthlessly lashed at Queen Victoria with cruel caricatures. Satirical drawings played a large part in the World War. And only a few years ago we can all remember the international incident, brought about by Gropper’s derogatory drawings of the Japanese Emperor that was published in Vanity Fair. Even today in Europe there are laws prohibiting the publication of caricatures of the heads of state.
The word caricature derives from the 17th Century Italian verb caricare, meaning to pack or to load. So that caricature might be called briefly “over-packed representation,” or perhaps “overstatement.” The term applied originally to personal portrait-caricatures of individuals. In the later 18th Century, when Europe rediscovered Greece, the vogue arose for classic art, and European society became intolerant of any digression from this type of legalized beauty. Any such divergence was considered grotesque, and the term caricature was used to designate the grotesque in graphic representation. The 19th Century again saw a different interpretation of the word- its meaning was enlarged to include any pictorial or graphic satire-political or otherwise, whether exaggerated or not. Recently, popular art, as exemplified by cartoons, has branched out and became an industry, and the word seems to be returning to its original usage-portrait-caricature.
Public opinion, however, still considers any graphic representation, which is ridiculous, comical, grotesque, or exaggerated, to be certain. Good caricature may have those qualities, indeed it often makes use of one or more of them. It certainly exaggerates, but exaggerated to excess without achieving a good caricature.
More comically is not the true test of caricature. There are some artists for whom the ability to make a comical likeness is only a clever trick. The subject has a big nose, so the commonplace artist exaggerates it. There is no penetration, no comment by the artist; it is simply a lampoon. The real caricaturist may fool that the nose, though big, has no significance in regard to the individual’s character- some other not-so-obvious feature may, indicate the character of the subject better- so he will give that feature prominence and understate the nose. A good caricature is not merely a face with a nose, or if it has a long nose, and it is a good caricature, it will have the beauty of Cyrano de Bergerac’s poetic tirade on his nose.
So, then, if caricature is not merely the emphasis and exaggeration of the individual’s obvious characteristics to give a comical or ridiculous effect, what is it? The true caricaturist makes use of exaggeration and distortion as the tools with which to show the outward physical signs of the inward spiritual character of the subject. And the intensity of his exaggeration will vary according to the qualities he wished to show. He will use just enough overstatement to reveal, without ridicule. His caricature will be quick with significance; and he will replace the unrestrained lampoons of the pseudo-caricaturist with subtle irony. He will be a skillful droughts-man, for high artistic excellence is necessary to express his approach to his subject. His caricatures will be beautiful as pictures- they will have design and formal coordination.
It was Whistler who remarked that a portrait is a picture with “something wrong with the mouth,” with the eyes, with the neck; because they are not realistically copied from the subject. A portrait is seldom interesting unless it possesses (like the portraits of Goya) some of the subtle qualities of caricature— the understatement of irrelevant features and the overstatement of pertinent ones. A portrait generally exhibits only one aspect of the sitter, while a good caricature portrays the sum total of the principal aspects of his personality. The many caricatures of George Bernard Shaw are well known- and he is certainly more Shavian in his caricatures than he is in his formal portraits.
The Art works which are encased in beautiful heavy frames have some of the characteristics of caricature. If exaggeration were the only criterion of caricature, then the paintings of Modigliani with their giraffe-like necks would be called caricatures. And Picasso’s free disintegration of the human figure into cubes or protozoic shapes as exemplified by his Portrait of Kahnweilor, or the Man with a Lollipop (in the Chrysler Collection) would then also come into the category of caricature……. not to mention the realistic distortions of Benton- whose people all look as though they got into an ant’s nest and been stung badly. If comicality were the criterion, the circuses of Seurat or the odalisques of Matisse- to say nothing of the surrealists, or the rectilinear fixations of Mondrian- would be classified as caricature. And if grotesqueness is caricature, then what of African sculpture, or the works of Epstein?
In conclusion, caricature, like any other specific term, overflows its boundaries; there is much of caricature in fine art and there can be much fine art in caricature. After all, it is not the medium in which it is executed, but rather its quality of excellence that makes a work of art.