Return to Index
Exhibition Review: A Visual Annotation in the History of Humor Kevin M. Flanagan "Caricature, Satire, and Comedy of Manners: Works on Paper from the 18th through 20th Centuries"
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, PA
Through September 5th, 2010

"Caricature, Satire, and Comedy of Manners" is not a big exhibition, and seems to have been comprised of what was readily at hand. It does not represent a comprehensive attempt at charting a trajectory for print comedy, nor does it aspire to international considerations. Confined to a rather small set of narrow rooms, it is not positioned as a blockbuster attraction, as a kind of pilgrimage destination to aid in filling the coffers. In fact, when I visited, it was not part of the "main" tour at all. Disinterested groups of students were being ushered along to the serious works, the sound-byte styles.

Let me start over. "Caricature, Satire, and Comedy of Manners" is an excellent primer on how print images—democratic, public, relatively cheap, untainted by the disinterested poise of high-artistic or academic styles—could at one time be counted as a rapid-response forum for exposing foibles, teaching morals, or reporting current events. Images meant for mass circulation in Europe and America (among them etchings, lithographs, aquatints, and mezzotints, to name but the most familiar) were not instantaneously conceived and executed, but rather allowed for a middle-ground. If the lauded academic oil painting was primarily located in a gallery-space or private collection, could only be viewed in original form in person, and generally demanded an excess of time and labor—the monumentality of the image, combined with the processes of priming and perfecting a painting mean a good deal of labor, and probably help from more than a few assistants, perhaps a whole workshop—then printed works on paper were positively speedy and much more likely to be seen and appreciated. Often circulated with newspapers or books, even sold and displayed in homes, these images took measured artistic and technological skill, but found a ready, willing audience. After the fashioning of the source-plate (which, under later reproductive circumstances, could itself be duplicated and circulated), the most time-consuming facts of print image-making had to do with delays in production (capital was needed to fund the initial run) and circulation (this required a further layer of labor, in the form of newspaper dealers, deliverymen, etc). Works on paper were at one time the best visual regime for complementing the form of capitalism that emerged out of the industrial revolution. Flexible, fast, contemporary, massively popular, tied to market interests, they were sold through the genius of the system—even when they were explicitly critical of that system, the ruling classes that perpetuated it, and the forms of waste and economic inadequacy which lead to much of the comedy!

Hogarth - Marriage a-la-Mode

William Hogarth — Marriage a-la-Mode (1745)

This particular exhibition allocates most of its space to the three giants of print: William Hogarth, Francisco Goya, and Honoré Daumier. It is convenient that they represent three distinctive national traditions (Britain, Spain, France) and three historical periods (the early-to-mid 18th century, the early 19th century, and the mid-to-late 19th century), respectively. As such, "Caricature, Satire, and Comedy of Manners" is a fine place to view, in somewhat aged detail, some of their most representative work. Prominently displayed in the first room are his Harlot's Progress series (1731) and Marriage a-la-Mode cycle (1745). Though politics and viewer reception have no doubt changed in roughly 275 years, these works are still instantly recognizable for their strong moral implications. Narrative tropes that have reached almost mythical proportions—think of how many texts rehearse the country/idyllic/moral vs. city/corrupting/immoral binary, or how common it still remains to stigmatize a woman for her personal (read: sexual) choices—are firmly in place here. Though the moralizing can read as lopsided and patronizing, there has always been a spectated ambivalence to scenes like these. Much like the figuration of the nude in painting, scenes such as these allow a glimpse at scandal, flesh, and taboo behavior, while remaining permissible, even officially admirable, due to their (sometimes insincere) attempts at condemnation.

Goya - Merry Folly

Francisco Goya — Merry Folly (Disparate allegre) (1815-1824) (1745)

The Goya prints on display are not the most widely known, but their impact is sure to be felt. In particular, Merry Folly (Disparate allegre) (1815-1824) emerges as typical of the wider view of his print work. The image, which shows dwarven figures pantomiming a ringed dance of death, registers points for shock and awe. Goya's skill lies in dark carnival, in mining the world for isolated moments of the grotesque. The Daumier's are primarily from the Types Parisiens series. Journalistic reportage meets unassailable caricature. Daumier's prints are the most steeped in the mass communication revolutions of his century, and his work goes after targets inclusive of victims of social inequality, scenes of true crime, prominent politicians, and artist/inventors (his image of Nadar in a balloon is legendary).

Perhaps the most regrettable part of this exhibition is that it tantalizes the visitor with other fine print-makers who are not afforded the same space as the giants. George Cruikshank—famous for illustrating Dicken's Sketches by Boz (1836)—is represented by A Mansion House Treat, or Smoking Attitudes (1800). A political comic strip to modern eyes, it hints at Cruikshank's acerbic wit, but does not go nearly as far into the absurd as some of his other prints. James Gillray's lone work is a print version of his painting The Bulstrode Siren (1803), which illustrates the Duke of Portland's leering admiration for diva Elizabeth Billington. Most lamentably under-represented is Thomas Rowlandson, solely present with The Horse Laugh (1828). I imagine that these omissions are not so much curatorial malice, but rather reflect the holdings to which the institution had access.