March 6, 2012

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.

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.


August 10, 2010

Another visit to a museum after Spanish class – this time to the Frick.  Madame d’Haussonville is ever watchful, and I still cannot figure out how her eyes follow one no matter from which side you look at her.  My brain was very much softened by the oppressive heat and humidity here – I saw correspondences everywhere!

Do I imagine them only?

Looking at the Old Testament stalwart by El greco brought Samuel Beckett, a very different sort of seer, to mind.

The pictorial source for the famous pose of the female at the center of J. L. David’s Rape of the Sabines has been documented as deriving from my favorite cartoonist, James Gillray, but did Gillray get his idea from…Fragonard of all people?  Can you imagine a more bizarre commutation of ideas:  rococo Fragonard  —>  acerbic, TORY, and hilarious Gillray —> righteous revolutionary propagandist, David??!

And just what is the meaning of the gleaming white silk dress that George Romney has painted onto Lady Warwick’s otherwise unimpressive figure?  An entire painting about a fabric?  Do you get to be a Lord or a Lady if you can illuminate your surroundings that way?

Democratic Transparency

August 30, 2008

Democratic Transparency - James Gillray

The content of political rhetoric is fluff, spin, and image mongering.  More so today than ever before?  Perhaps.  For those who are interested, the truth is not hard to find behind the colored pictures of the magic lantern show of television.

Every once in a while, I come across an article or a letter in the NYTimes that nails it right on the head.  Simply, and without complications.  Here is my latest entry:

To the Editor:

John McCain’s choice of Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska as his running mate is reminiscent of President George H. W. Bush’s choice of Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court.

Faced with public sentiment for an African-American to replace Justice Thurgood Marshall, Mr. Bush said, in effect: “You want an African-American? Here’s one who will consistently work against most African-American interests.”

Mr. McCain, thinking that he can seduce supporters of Hillary Rodham Clinton, says: “You want a woman on the ticket? Here’s a solidly anti-choice woman who’ll work against women’s interests.”

Interestingly, both choices play the same game of identity politics that Republicans claim to abhor.

Their cynicism is shameless.

Joseph Russo

Bristol, R.I., Aug. 29, 2008

Thanks, Mr. Russo.

Foxy Lady

July 5, 2008

This is a late 18th century print by Rowlandson called “Reynard put to his shifts.”  It is from my personal collection, and is one of my favorites because of the dense knot of allusions, mythological, sexual, political, and satirical that it contains.  Just what is it about?

“Reynard” is the French word for fox, and it is sometimes used in English fables (in the land of fox hunting) as the name as an animal character.  The Fox referred to here is Charles James Fox , Whig opponent of the Tories.  James Gillray lampooned him often and viciously, partly because Gillray was, for a while, in the pay of the Tory party.  (Though he didn’t spare James Pitt, the Tory leader, either.)  Here is a detail of a Gillray satire of Mr. Fox  that shows him assassinating British liberty in the costume of a French sans culotte revolutionary.  (He was, for a time, a supporter of that revolution, and Gillray pilloried him as an unpatriotic sympathizer with Napoleon long after the Revolution had devoured its children.)  In my print, Mr. Fox is, of course, shown as a fox chased by some vicious hounds that bark out the names of legislative bills he supported.  A fashionably dressed woman  calls out to him, “My dear fox, get into cover,”  inviting him to run and hide beneath her skirts.  The sexual innuendo is indirect, but clear.  What is going on?

In 1784, the year this print was made, two unusual things happened in British politics:  Mr. Fox had to actually compete for his seat in parliament – usually a seat once gained, was totally safe; and Mrs. Georgiana Cavendish, an educated, brilliant, cultured, and tremendously wealthy noblewoman (shown here in a portrait by Gainsborough – she was famously addicted to gambling) who was a distant cousin, friend and supporter of Fox, went out on the hustings to drum up support for him.  (He won in the end.)  Never mind the Age of Enlightenment, this was not women’s work, and she was ridiculed and lampooned for it.

Rowlandson himself, did several satires of her political canvassing, including these two, which show Mrs. Cavendish suckling foxes at her breast, and buying votes by selling kisses.  Other less subtle prints show her groping tradesmen, not just kissing them, or playing with voters on a see-saw balanced on a penis fulcrum.

There is an additional association:  the theme of “Reynard put to his shifts,” i.e., the hunted fox at his wits end, was a common theme in popular culture of the day.  Here is an image by Carrington Bowles (1779) that shows one representation of the story with some commentary:

Reynard’s Last Shift may be read satirically as a comment on the upper-class hunters’ callous indifference to the disruption their sport brings down upon a peasant family. But we know as well that the image takes place within a narrative that here begins to yield other possibilities, among them the lascivious joke of the huntsman grabbing tail, highlighted by his reach between the legs of the alarmed woman. There is also the problem of the two genteel bystanders, woman and man, whose amused nonchalance is so striking. Is this cruel indifference or is it just possible that the young man’s gesture and her gaze indicate that they share our lascivious joke, setting up a complicity with the viewer? And indeed who are we as the imagined viewer? Possibly our 18th Century counterparts—the purchasers for a print like this—would be more of the “middling sort” who would see themselves as neither gentry or peasant, but there were always openings for alignment one way or the other. It could be that part of what made “jokes” like this so resilient in the period was a fluidity of the social structure in which the boundaries were unstable, even while readily recognizable within the visual delineation the prints suggested through such markers as dress.
from Clark University

This sort of close and entertaining analysis of satirical prints from this period of English history is found in abundance in Vic Gatrell’s fabulous book, City of Laughter:  Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London.

In this image, Georgiana is given a sort of [mock] heroic aspect, standing tall and firm, while fox cowers beneath her skirts.  The dangers to Fox’s political personna are apparent – Karl Rove is not an original thinker.  My sense also is that Rowlandson here is alluding ironically to the myth of Actaeon, with which he was certainly familiar, as would any man of his standing, all of whom were educated on the classics.  That unfortunate man, Actaeon, loved nothing so much as hunting stags with his hounds, but one day he accidentally happened on the goddess Diana naked at her bath.  She splashed and cursed him, he metamorphosed into a stag, and his own beloved hunting dogs pursued himand tore him to pieces.  He couldn’t even form words to call to them to stop.  Here, the goddess is his protector, simultaneously saving him, and by implication, emasculating him, I think.

The Masses are Revolting

February 14, 2008


“Sire, come quickly! The peasants are revolting!!” You know that old joke.

Carlyle, my constant companion these days, writes of the black, sulphorous mass beneath all society, slowly rising up, for good or ill. The masses, with their red Phrygian caps of liberty, planting liberty trees everywhere, staging revolutionary spectacles on the Champs de Mars that mix royal pomp, medieval papistry, and carnival.

Gillray pilloried James Fox, yet again, by showing him as a scruffy, farting, bloodied sans cullote (in fact without [knee] breeches, not without pants, but Gillray can’t let such a chance go) shouting Ca Ira!, [It will go well!] loosely translated here:

We’ll string up the aristocrats!
Despotism will die,
Liberty will triumph
“We will win, we will win, we will win,”

And we will no longer have nobles or priests
“We will win, we will win, we will win,””
Equality will reign throughout the land

And the Austrian slave will follow it.
“We will win, we will win, we will win,”

zenith_gillray.jpg And here is Gillray showing the zenith of the glorious revolution, speaking of stringing up people on the Lanterne as Carlyle refers to the lampost cum lynching post.

Was this the true birth of mass society? The rule of the mass-mob-demos-and consumer? Carlyle devotes a chapter to journalism of the day – it was everywhere:

One Sansculottic bough that cannot fail to flourish is Journalism. The voice of the People being the voice of God, shall not such divine voice make itself heard? To the ends of France… Constant, illuminative, as the nightly lamplighter, issues the useful Moniteur, for it is now become diurnal: with facts and few commentaries; official, safe in the middle…

A daily newspaper! The Moniteur. Faithfully reporting the news so that I, centuries later, sunk in my collegiate ennui, deep down in the third sub-basement of the library, can happen upon its collected numbers, bound, gilt-edged, in tattered leather covers, and turn hopefully to the news of January 21, 1793, and read of the execution by guillotine of Louis Capet. (Where did I put that photocopy?)

And news for all!

Nor esteem it small what those Bill-stickers had to do in Paris: above Three Score of them: all with their crosspoles, haversacks, pastepots; nay with leaden badges, for the Municipality licenses them. A Sacred College, properly of World-rulers’ Heralds, though not respected as such, in an Era still incipient and raw. Such is Journalism, hawked, pasted, spoken. How changed…since the first Venetian News-sheet was sold for a gazza, or farthing, and named Gazette! We live in a fertile world.

Mass journalism, for anyone with half a penny. Posters, placards, propaganda on parade. The satirical prints of the day were more scatalogical than Gillray’s by far! The revolution sought to manage information, to create its record consciously.

And what of Ortega y Gasset, author of The Revolt of the Masses? He despised the mass-man, but like Flaubert, did not identify him with an economic strata, but as a type. (Flaubert: I despise the bourgeois in a worker’s smock as well as the one in a top hat!) Could it be that Ortega is writing about the genesis of kitschman?

He felt that history was moved by aristocrats, the Nietzchean supermen, the special ones, but why did he feel that? Because the movement of history was marked by the “progress” in things he valued. What about movement for its own sake? What if history just moves, never progresses? No theory, no subject class, just one darn thing after another. And the mass-men, the sans cullottes, Carlyle’s hero-men, they all play their part.

Bubbly Economics

December 21, 2007

If you have read my recent post on Ayn Rand, or if you keep tabs on right wing pseudo-intellectualism in general, you might be interested in Paul Krugman’s column in the New York Times today. Writing about the ongoing mortgage debacle, he derides Alan Greenspan and others for their inaction regarding the real estate lending bubble that is now deflating rapidly and with great consequences for the economy as a whole. He regards it as a triumph of extreme ideology, and he specifically singles out for mention Alan Greenspan and his lifelong devotion to the ideas of Ayn Rand. I quote:

In a 1963 essay for Ms. Rand’s newsletter, Mr. Greenspan dismissed as a “collectivist” myth the idea that businessmen, left to their own devices, “would attempt to sell unsafe food and drugs, fraudulent securities, and shoddy buildings.” On the contrary, he declared, “it is in the self-interest of every businessman to have a reputation for honest dealings and a quality product.”

Sound familiar? How can anyone believe such rot? Then or now? Of course, the Nobelist Milton Friedman was similarly hypnotized by the “power of the market.” So interesting, then, to read Adam Smith, the granddad of modern economics and to see his views on the merchant class. I quote once again his remarks on the merchant class, from The Wealth of Nations:

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.

Of course, I can’t resist putting in another Gillray link, this time on the theme of uncorking…



December 10, 2007


In Nabokov’s autobiography, Speak Memory, there is a chapter in which he takes a break from his sometimes tedious nostalgia about the comings and goings of his aristocratic family and describes the origins of his “mania” for butterflies. Of course, he was a serious collector and respected lepidopterist all of his life.

The image of men with butterfly nets has often been used in movies and TV for comic effect, but apparently his experience was that it was regarded as simply bizarre. Here he describes the impact of his boyish hunts on the startled Russian country people:

“I would see in my wake the villagers frozen in the various attitudes my passage had caught them in, as if I were Sodom and they Lot’s wife.”

Marvelous simile there, a movable city of sin, the burning metropolis of Sodom, plowing through the countryside leaving a trail of salt/stone figures, transfixed by its passing. And here he addresses the frightening aspects of transformation as he comes across a caterpillar on the path:

“…a strange creature…in a frantic search for a place to pupate (the awful pressure of metamorphosis, the aura of a disgraceful fit in a public place).”

I think it was Joyce Carrol Oates who identified the “gothic” element in Dante’s Inferno, as those passages in which characters experience in helpless terror the changing of their bodies into something else. (The “disgraceful fit” reminds me of Dostoyevsky’s descriptions of his epileptic attacks, always ecstatic in the end). Transformations and horror, as with Actaeon, werewolves, American and otherwise, Jekyll-Hyde, vampires male and female, and even the Incredible Hulk.

actaeon.gifwerewolf.gif groon_p15jpg.gif hulk.gif

(The image at the top is by James Gillray, and shows a celebrated naturalist Joseph Banks.)

Richard Sala Comics

December 4, 2007


How nice to talk about an artist who hasn’t been dead for two centuries. Well, I see no reason to apologize for my taste, and if you read my recent post “On Paper,” you know that Richard Sala is my favorite comics artist now. This black and white piece from “The Grave Robber’s Daughter” illustrates other aspects of his work that I love: comic gore galore; black humor; great sound “effects” (does he practice stabbing people to get it right?); sexy, tough, profane female characters; and femme fatales, dead and alive.

The heroine above is Judy Drood, a dark alter-ego of Nancy Drew. She slugs and swears like a sailor. The image below is his fetching heroine, Peculia, to be found in his series Evil Eye, and elsewhere. You don’t want to mess with her either. How does he make them so sexy with such simple elements? Too bad Peculia isn’t real…she wouldn’t like me anyway…I’m reading these things too much!


I was not always a comics fan. As a boy, I read a bit of Superman and Batman. After college, I enjoyed reading Zap and Anarchy comics briefly. I always liked Edgar Allen Poe, however, and clearly, so does Sala! It was James Gillray, of course, that reawakened my joy in the pure entertainment of graphic images. The sheer delight I get from Gillray’s wild and vicious satires is matched by the giddy pleasure of Sala’s hilarious, dark, absurd, noir-world. It’s pure entertainment of a very special kind. See for yourself —-> Richard Sala’s Page.