(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.
Chapter XXVIII, The Ironmaster, of Bleak House finds us in the company of Sir Leicester Dedlock, the gouty and unrepentantly reactionary worthy who forms one party to the interminable Chancery suit of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce. His character, and that of his wife, Lady Dedlock, are examples of Dicken’s unsurpassed talent for skewering social pretension, and perhaps are indicative of his feelings about British class society. I wonder how this chapter was received by the public, popular as the book was. Did the power-elite grumble about it as another case of some uppity middle-class gnat taking unfair potshots at one of their members? Was it seen as inconsequential as todays sitcoms making fun of “rich people” sometimes are?
Sir Leicester learns that a tradesman, dealer in iron, wishes to speak to him about his son’s desire to become engaged to one of the household servants. It seems that the man’s son also is standing for a seat in the House of Commons. He and his poor relation, Volumnia, contemplate the degradation of society:
“And it is a remarkable example of the confusion into which the present age has fallen; of the obliteration of landmarks, the opening of floodgates, and the uprooting of distinctions,” says Sir Leicester with stately gloom; “that I have been informed, by Mr Tulkinghorn, that Mrs Rouncewell’s son has been invited to go into Parliament.”
Miss Volumnia utters a little sharp scream.
“Yes, indeed,” repeats Sir Leicester. “Into Parliament.”
“I never heard of such a thing! Good gracious, what is the man?” exclaims Volumnia.
“He is called, I believe — an — Ironmaster.” Sir Leicester says it slowly, and with gravity and doubt, as not being sure but that he is called a Lead-mistress; or that the right word may be some other word expressive of some other relationship to some other metal.
Volumnia utters another little scream.
That’s all in good fun, but this next bit is shaper. Sir Leicester is beset by all sorts of family parasites – even the richest of the rich have poor relations – and they must be provided for, but it is getting harder to do it. The old landed aristocracy making way for the crass commercial elite, and upper-class entitlement is running into some roadblocks:
In any country in a wholesome state, Volumnia would be a clear case for the pension list. Efforts have been made to get her on it; and when William Buffy came in, it was fully expected that her name would be put down for a couple of hundred a-year. But William Buffy somehow discovered, contrary to all expectation, that these were not the times when it could be done; and this was the first clear indication Sir Leicester Dedlock had conveyed to him, that the country was going to pieces.
There is likewise the Honourable Bob Stables, who can make warm mashes with the skill of a veterinary surgeon, and is a better shot than most gamekeepers. He has been for some time particularly desirous to serve his country in a post of good emoluments, unaccompanied by any trouble or responsibility. In a well regulated body politic, this natural desire on the part of a spirited young gentleman so highly connected, would be speedily recognized; but somehow William Buffy found when he came in, that these were not times in which he could manage that little matter, either; and this was the second indication Sir Leicester Dedlock had conveyed to him, that the country was going to pieces.
When Sir Leicester does meet with the Ironmaster, we see that he is a brisk man of business, with no nonsense or pretension, who is careful to give the lords what they consider their due respect, although he certainly is clipped about it. Sir Leicester, for his part, can’t get over the fact that he must actually speak with this man who does not make it obvious at every moment that he considers himself a miserable inferior to his gracious lord of the manor.
Tom Friedman has outlined his latest installment in the ideology of fear, backed by his fellow mainstream writer, Bill Keller. Friedman tells how us how he stops his worrying (or at least, worrying about the wrong things) and has learned to love Big Brother, and Keller says he is making an “important point”:
Yes, I worry about potential government abuse of privacy from a program designed to prevent another 9/11 — abuse that, so far, does not appear to have happened. But I worry even more about another 9/11. That is, I worry about something that’s already happened once — that was staggeringly costly — and that terrorists aspire to repeat.
I worry about that even more, not because I don’t care about civil liberties, but because what I cherish most about America is our open society, and I believe that if there is one more 9/11 — or worse, an attack involving nuclear material — it could lead to the end of the open society as we know it. If there were another 9/11, I fear that 99 percent of Americans would tell their members of Congress: “Do whatever you need to do to, privacy be damned, just make sure this does not happen again.” That is what I fear most.
So, here in the Republic of Fear, we appeal to the best in our citizens,their abject terror of something bad happening. The print by James Gillray at the top recalls an earlier historical episode of the Security State, the British effort to root out atheists, freethinkers, and revolutionists in its midst. Gillray was paid by the Tories, but he couldn’t help seeing how ridiculous they were, despite his politics.
Bad things do happen all the time, it’s true, although usually to other people, but surely those terrorists are targeting me! It follows, that we must cast principles by the wayside and go all out to provide security.
This security apparatus doesn’t do a very good job, although it never ever makes mistakes. A recent FBI review of 150 shootings by agents concluded that every last one of them was perfectly justified. That beats the NYPD hands down! The NSA, CIA, etc. did a great job of preventing the Boston bombing, and we all know how well the CIA did before 9/11 (See Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower). Was a lack of data the problem?
The head of the NSA has testified that the snooping has foiled 50, yes 50 terrorist plots. I’m sure he has a list, and it seems to have grown since the uproar started. Not many details offered, however. All top-secret. I wonder… Another acolyte of the Security State has argued for the necessity of gathering all of our phone records by saying, “If you are searching for a needle in a haystack, first you need a haystack.” Is this really the best way to protect our country? It’s remarks like this that made the phrase “Military Intelligence” an oxymoron.
Once they have this data, mistakes will be made. They have been made already. Sometimes with dire consequences, such as rendering suspects to countries that are willing to torture them without limit (Syria’s no longer good for that, however.) or just upending their lives because a name appeared on a list somehow, like the lawyer in Washington state who converted to Islam after he married a woman from the middle east. Ah…the price we pay for liberty!
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.