(click to enlarge the image)
My latest obsession – the prints of Mr. James Gillray, father of the political cartoon. I recently saw an enormous exposition of his work at the New York Public Library, and I was entranced. I’ve never had the least interest in collecting anything, not since I was a boy collecting metal cars, but the sight of his prints started me on a long-term project. Unfortunately, original impressions of his engravings and etchings are rare and expensive, so I shall be able to purchase only those of lesser quality or later editions from the 1849 Bohn edition. Oh well…The one on the upper left is one of his ‘suppressed plates’, i.e., he never printed it, either because of government, publisher, or self-censorship. It is a jab at the king and his mistress, who was unpopular, and who was a rather petite woman compared to His Majesty. Gillray digs the knife in by ostensibly comparing their shoe sizes in this very funny and racy design that even Gary Hart might love. [Speaking of Mr. Hart, candidate manquee, my hat's off to him for skewering David Brooks with his letter to the editors of the NYTimes in which he pointed out that Brooks, the new-age conservative, was ripping off a good idea of George McGovern's, the bete noir of the right.]
Next, we have a print on a bizarre geometic theme, showing a sphere being projected onto a plane – a reference to some rumor of the day – and a conceit dear to my digital-cartographer’s heart. Then, France and Brittania kissing and making up, and finally, one of his many anti-Jacobin prints, decrying the execution of Louis XVI and deploring the Reign of Terror. He is wonderfully witty, tremendously inventive, higbrow and vulgar all at once. Hilarious! Exhilarating!
You can see a large image of the last three by clicking on the thumbnails, and you can find several websites that have a lot of his work on display, for sale or simply for show.
But God who oft descends to visit men
Unseen, and through thir habitations walks
To mark thir doings, them beholding soon,
Comes down to see thir Citie, ere the Tower
Obstruct Heav’n Towrs, and in derision sets
Upon thir Tongues a various Spirit to rase
Quite out thir Native Language, and instead
To sow a jangling noise of words unknown:
Forthwith a hideous gabble rises loud
Among the Builders; each to other calls
Not understood, till hoarse, and all in rage,
As mockt they storm; great laughter was in Heav’n
And looking down, to see the hubbub strange
And hear the din; thus was the building left
Ridiculous, and the work Confusion nam’d.
from Paradise Lost Book XII
And from an earlier passage in the poem, where Satan meets Sin and Death (I think he is kin to both of them…) guarding the gates of hell, James Gillray drew inspiration for one of his most popular caricatures. (In Sin, Death and the Devil (1792). Pitt is Death and Thurlow Satan, with Queen Charlotte as Sin in the middle.) Then Jacques Louis David somehow took it into his head to use the Gillray’s pose for his Rape of the Sabine Women. More here.
Here in this dehumanizing machine known as Manhattan, there’s a lot to be seen on one’s lunch hour – a slack work-ethic helps.
I went to the Morgan Library to see its exhibit on animals in art, music, and literature. Yes, there were some bestiaries devoted to the theme of love. I hope Santorum is alerted.
I was drawn to the show by the magnificent Tegu lizard in the newspaper review: I love that pose!
The Grandeville satire below is typical of his sly work, which always shows French bourgeois mores in an animal light. Here a boring teacher drills his students who parrot his words and respond to his demands for conjugation with the fresh lines: “we are tired; you tire us.”
James Gillray’s early work was filled with animals because that was a very long tradition in satirical caricature, and because, how could he resist?, one of his principal subjects was James Fox, always referred to as Monsieur Reynard. This print, lacking his later complexity and pizzazz, nevertheless packs a lot into its simple composition. Note the understated slyness of the fox’s expression, peering down his long muzzle and over his paunch, and the attitudes of the rat-headed retainers. Art Spiegelman comes to mind, of course.
I love serial small images on paper. This page is titled, Affordable Animals, and was a cheap Dutch production intended for instructing young children.
I visited the Met today to see the exhibition on caricature - Infinite Jest. Among the things I learned was that Delacroix was heavily into satire and caricature early in his career, and that he studied my favorite, James Gillray, very closely: The show had studies by Delacroix of Gillray’s cartoons. Of course, Gillray was well represented, including his most famous image, and one of the most famous political cartoons of all time, The Plum Pudding.
There were several by Daumier of course, including the one at the top here, showing Louis Phillipe as a three-faced pear-headed fellow. Each face sees a different time, past, present, future, and they are all bad. Daumier did many variations on the King-as-pear theme, including one showing him, popular and democratically inclined at first, slowly mutating into peardom as he sinks into corruption and incompetence.
Another Daumier shows the Marquis de Lafayette, the one who helped George Washington in our Revolutionary War, dreaming a very bad dream that he is oppressed by a pear standing in for a succubus. Lafayette publicly embraced the king when he took power (shown in the picture on the wall behind him) and grew to mightily regret his early support.
Elsewhere in the museum, time continues to stand still. These Renaissance plates, maiolica ware, show Actaeon, a favorite theme of mine (see here and here), and the death of Achilles. I’ve never seen Actaeon turned into a stag with his full suit of clothes still on him, nor have I seen Diana and her nymphs bathing in such a crowded fountain. As for Achilles, I never imagined that Hector was so darn close to him when he got in his lucky shot at the heel of the invincible hero. These images have a slightly cartoonish look to them, I think.
In cartoons, sometimes you see into the hearts of characters, literally. This marvelous statue group of The Visitation, the mother of Jesus and the mother of Saint John the Baptist meeting and greeting each other, provides each figure with a large rock crystal lozenge on the breast of each woman. Originally, you would have been able to see a little image of the Christ child and the Saint growing within each of the women.
The post’s title is the headline of a NYTimes article today. In case you are wondering why the reign of the Bankers and Rentiers seems so secure. The President and the Congress seem as one on this point. No change you can believe in.
Alas, poor suckling public servants, sometimes there are more pigs than teats!
An article in today’s New York Times describes the new Google Art Project. This is Google’s latest info/data binge, as it pursues its goal of organizing all the world’s data. It harks back to a book I bought many years ago in which an artist created an imaginary museum that he would like to visit. It’s an old idea, and an intriguing one for art lovers.
The article gives a review that is generally favorable, and enthusiastic, with several warnings about it being a work in progress. The title makes a knowing reference to Walter Benjamin’s famous essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. I took a look.
These are my reactions:
- Why would you want to ‘navigate’ through a ‘virtual 3-D’ museum as you do on Google street view? It’s incredibly awkward, and the point is to look at the art anyway, not the museum. Unless it’s a building with historical interest. My stroll down Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors wasn’t very illuminating…
- A lot of museums and universities (here’s a favorite: NYPL) have very good online sites that make much of their collection available, with a lot more information, context, and technological elegance. I don’t see that the Google site offers anything. The reviewer addressed some of this, but asserts that the United Nations aspect of the site – it brings together museums from all over the world – is a valuable feature.
- I would much rather see Google funding the creation of sites by specific museums than trying to do it all itself, with the obvious publicity advantages accruing to their stockholders.
- Some of the high-resolution images are truly incredible.
- Although the images may be more faithful than what you can get from most art books, there is much to be said in favor of the book format over this sort of online browsing. For doing research, as opposed to browsing, the Web and Google are magnificent.
- The reviewer says: From where I sit Google’s Art Project looks like a bandwagon everyone should jump on. It makes visual knowledge more accessible, which benefits us all. Who would argue against the idea that the more that is available on the Web, the better? But I have my doubts about whether Google is providing an improvement on the current experience of reproductions, which are the “next best thing” to viewing the actual art. Nor do I think that the dessimination of [visual] information is the same as the spread of [visual] knowledge. That is a misconception of The Information Age, which is to say, The Age of Google.
This concludes yet another dyspeptic rant by yours truly.
I am wrapping up my re-reading of War and Peace, and have reached the Epilogue in which Tolstoy gives us a peek at the settled lives his characters lead after the tumult of 1812. He starts off with another round in his demolition of Napoleon and The Great Man Theory of History, and then descends into rather tedious domestic relations, before returning to a lengthy essay on causation in history. A few years later, Tolstoy would begin Anna Karenina with one of literature’s most famous first lines:
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
but in his Epilogue, he hasn’t realized this yet, and he is quite boring and almost sentimental in his description of the endless happiness of his happily married figures. It’s only a few false steps after a journey of a thousand miles though, and they are preceded by one of Tolstoy’s wonderfully condensed valentines to young lovers on the brink of joy as Pierre and Natasha get together:
She glanced back. For a few seconds they looked silently into each other’s eyes, and the distant and impossible suddenly became near, possible, and inevitable. . . . . . . . . .
What could be the stuff of soap opera melodrama is nothing more than this. The two lines of evenly spaced dots are in the original.
Tolstoy then goes on to dissect and discard the myth of Napoleon Bonaparte, treating him as an egotistical, short-sighted, vainglorious man, with “childish boldness and self-confidence,” (which echoes Tolstoy’s description of Prince Andrei’s sally at Austerlitz), who managed to be at the right place at the right time to ride the crest of historical waves, and then be crushed beneath them as they broke. He was certainly making a valuable correction to the romantic hero-worship of people such as Carlyle, but he goes too far, confusing and conflating the moral and historical meanings of the word “great.”
He describes the invasion of Russia in 1812 in pseudo-scientific, metaphorical terms as waves of migration moving one way and another, causing backwashes, as though he is discussing the great Asiatic migrations of the 5th or 12th centuries, that gave us the barbarian invasions of Rome and the Mongol Hordes. He never says what causes those waves, and he doesn’t entertain the idea that perhaps a “great man” is simply one who knows when he is at the right place in the right time. He sees it as simply chance upon chance. He refers mysteriously to the “purposes” of history, and uses metaphors of the theatre – the last act, the script, the role figures play – and so on. Perhaps he thinks that God is the director, but it’s a short jump from Tolstoy to Karl Marx who thought he had scientifically described the same laws of history that Tolstoy mystifies.
Perhaps history is bunk, or just one damned thing after another. Or perhaps there are causes to be discerned in history, but they only hold true for specific instances, and are never universal laws. Or perhaps causes only exist in retrospect…Tolstoy seems to prefigure Lichanos’ Iron Law of Historical Causation when he says:
Why did it happen this way and not otherwise? Because this is how it happened.
Tolstoy did his historical debunking of Napoleon some fifty years after the fact, but James Gillray was onto the same ideas while Boney was in his glory. One of his caricatures is at the top of this post, and another, a comic strip political cartoon nearly two centuries before Doonesbury, is shown below. It illustrates several of the episodes alluded to by Tolstoy in his acid recounting of the rise of the Great Man.
For more Gillray images of Napoleon, visit this excellent site: Brown University Digial Library
I have reached the chapters of Tolstoy’s War and Peace after the Battle of Borodino. The Russian army is retreating beyond Moscow, and the city is being left to the invading French. Napoleon’s triumphal entry will be his undoing. Tolstoy tells us that just as a pouring water on earth leaves no earth and no water, but only mud, just so did the flooding in of the French army leave no city, and no army. Empty Moscow absorbed the army as sand absorbs water. The army was destroyed as soon as it dispersed into the empty quarters of Moscow, and it became a disorganized, undisciplined, looting horde: the city burned.
Tolstoy does not blame the French for burning the city, nor does he credit ardent, or fanatical, Russian patriots. Rather, he says that it was inevitable that Moscow would burn. An empty city, built of wood, inhabited by an invading army, an army that casually piles furniture in squares to make bonfires – such a city was sure to disappear in flames. Chicago did the same later in the century as a result of one cow kicking over a lantern!
In the early period of the occupation, Pierre has a fascinating encounter with a French officer commandeering the villa he is resting in. The officer, a handsome and vain young man from a noble family, enters the house and beings surveying the rooms to make arrangements. One of the Russian inhabitants is a gentleman acquaintance of Pierre’s who is old and mentally ill, even delusional. The man tries to shoot the Frenchman, and Pierre instinctively protects him, wresting the gun from his friend. He begs the officer not to punish the man who is clearly not in his right mind.
The conquering officer is magnanimous. He declares that Pierre, who has saved his life, is now a Frenchman. Tolstoy comments that this man could imagine nobody but a Frenchman being capable of any such heroism. The officer is quite talkative, and even charming, while also pompous, noble (in the manner of the French we are told by Tolstoy), and completely unaware of the nature of the people around him. He is so wrapped up in his dream of French gloire, his love of Napoleon, and his joy in the victory of which he has been a part, that he imagines that people are just what he thinks they are.
The officer resembles Tolstoy’s Napoleon in his self-absorbtion, but what struck me was that his behavior and attitudes were the same as those who would conquer France in another 130 years, the Nazis. This invading French army saw itself as the master race, coming to distribute, in a condescending and benevolently despotic manner, the fruits of their superior and admirable civilization. The tone of the officer’s talk prefigures speeches by pompous, arrogant, brutal Nazis declaring the benefits of the Reich that they are bringing to their victims. Its self-satisfaction and ignorance would be its destruction.
With the benefits of 130 years of pseudo-science, the Nazis were able to refine this outlook to the point that many of those they conquered were classified as sub-human, and suitable for burning or mass slaughter. The French were still in the throes of the Romantic Age.