Caricature, Maiolica, and Medieval

September 25, 2011

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.

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Black and White

December 18, 2007

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The drawing above is by the artist Heinrich Kley, an academic painter who turned satirist. I owe my rediscovery of him – I’ve seen some of his images before – to Richard Sala, who like me, enjoys his drawings and mentioned them in an interview. (He also intimates that his heroine Peculia is inspired by Louise Brooks.)

Kley’s drawings can be grotesque, bizarre, and hilarious. (Here is a site with a nice gallery: The Art of Heinrich Kley). The tension and sinuosity of his line – so typical of Art Nouveau – is fascinating. Click on this thumbnail to see a short animated tribute to him that I created from some of his drawings, a sequence that may have inspired some animators at Disney.

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There’s no end to the wonders of black and white drawings, woodcuts, and engravings from this period, some of them a source of rich inspiration for comic artists today, as well as others of course. I find the work of Frans Masereel particularly arresting. Both he and the American Lynd Ward, created early forms of what some now call the “graphic novel.”

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Gillray

February 21, 2005

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.