Published: September 20, 2011
Not always known for its humorous shows, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is showing “Infinite Jest: Caricature and Satire from Leonardo to Levine” through March 4. Organized by associate curator Constance. McPhee and curator Nadine M. Orenstein, both of the Metropolitan Museum’s department of drawings and prints, the exhibition consist mostly of works the museum’s collection.
“Infinite Jest” explores humorous imagery from the Italian Renaissance to the present with sheets by artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Eugène Delacroix, Francisco de Goya, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Enrique Chagoya alongside works by artists more often associated with visual humor, such as James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson, Honoré Daumier, Al Hirschfeld and David Levine. Many of these engaging caricatures and satires have never been exhibited and are little known except to specialists.
The exhibition’s title, “Infinite Jest,” derives from Hamlet . Shakespeare’s play is quoted in a Civil War print from the 1864 presidential campaign caricaturing Democratic candidate General George McClellan as Hamlet and his Republican opponent, President Abraham Lincoln, as the exhumed skull from the play’s gravedigger’s scene, using the famous line: “I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest.”
The exhibition is divided into four sections. The first explores the building blocks of caricature, a genre that artists employed through the centuries, which took shape in Europe when Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings of grotesque heads were copied by followers and distributed as prints.
The second section examines social satire expressed in works devoted to gambling, eating and drinking, male and female fashion, art and crowds. The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries are known as the golden age of caricature and satire, with William Hogarth, Gillray, Rowlandson and George Cruikshank producing lively examples in Britain, and Honoré Daumier and Louis Léopold Boilly doing the same in France.
Politics are the focus of the exhibition’s third section, featuring prints produced in response to the American and French Revolutions, to Napoleon’s conquest of Europe and to French, Mexican and American politics of the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, including the American Civil War.
The exhibition ends with a group of caricatures of notable people through the Twenty-First Century, including Al Hirschfeld’s “Americans in Paris” from 1951, and the most recent piece, Enrique Chagoya’s “The Headache, A Print after George Cruikshank,” from 2010.
In conjunction with “Infinite Jest,” an installation of recently acquired drawings and prints from the museum’s collection will be on display in the Robert Wood Johnson Jr Gallery to January 9. This group consists mostly of works of modern political satire by artists Robbie Conal, David Levine and Pat Oliphant.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is at 1000 Fifth Avenue. For information, 212-535-7710 or www.metmuseum.org .
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