Today we look at an entertaining and informative new Yale book which looks at some of the finest examples of caricatures and other satirical works, dating from c.1500 to the present day.
Despite being around for hundreds of years, the caricature is still very much a part of British political satire, especially in newspapers, where public figures are depicted in a variety of hilarious, disturbing and downright insulting ways (see Phil Disley’s recent Guardian cartoon of David Cameron and Andy Coulson for a timely example).
Caricature is an art form that has its routes in the works of Leonardo da Vinci, who actively sought people with deformities to use as models. It became popular in the closed aristocratic circles of France and Italy, where humorous drawings could be passed about for mutual enjoyment.
The point of the caricature is to offer an impression of the original which is more striking and meaningful than a portrait. In fact, the word “caricature” comes from the Italian caricare, “to load”, thus the caricaturist’s aim is to invest his image with as much meaning as possible.
Those familiar with 18th-century British history will certainly recognize the work of practitioners Thomas Rowlandson (1756–1827) and James Gillray (1757–1815), the latter inspiring generations of political cartoonists with his vicious visual satirisation of political life.
From Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings of grotesque heads to contemporary prints lampooning American politicians, the Metropolitan Museum in New York holds a vast and largely unknown collection of caricatures and satirical works. Infinite Jest: Caricature and Satire from Leonardo to Levine (published this month) is a handsome new book from Yale that offers 160 examples of caricatures dating from about 1500 to the present – many of them previously unpublished – that reflect the age-old tradition of employing exaggeration and humour to convey personal, social, or political meaning.
Stressing the continuity of certain artistic approaches, Infinite Jest examines the development of the genre across a broad expanse of centuries. The basic visual components of caricature are discussed and illustrated, as are significant themes such as physical types, people as animals or objects, social satire (food, fashion, and foreigners) and politics (British, French, and American).
Artists as well known as Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, William Hogarth, Francisco de Goya, Thomas Rowlandson, Eugene Delacroix, Honore Daumier and David Levine contribute their distinctive talents to this fascinating and very amusing compilation.
Infinite Jest is available now from Yale University Press