Feature

Exhibit of the week: Infinite Jest: Caricature and Satire From Leonardo to Levine

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art's new exhibit, six centuries of artists make fun of the cultural and political figures of their times.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New YorkThrough March 4

Ridicule never goes out of style, said Barrymore Laurence Scherer in The Wall Street Journal. For proof, look no further than the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where six centuries of artists are currently reminding any visitor frustrated by the bumblers in charge of things today that “many of the same human and political foibles have repeated themselves throughout history.” The satiric skewering of cultural and political figures has proved hard to resist for artists from Leonardo da Vinci, whose small grotesque of a “Roman-nosed” man opens the show, to Enrique Chagoya, who cribbed an 1819 George Cruikshank print to mock the political tribulations of President Barack Obama. This is the rare museum show that will have visitors “frequently laughing out loud.”

Actually, I didn’t find the show all that funny, said Ken Johnson in The New York Times. Much of the draftsmanship on view is stellar, but there’s a major problem: “Caricature has a shelf life.” To hit its mark, it needs an audience that recognizes its full context. The older a work is, “the less funny it is and the more you need verbal explanation to fully appreciate its humorous deformations.” Nowhere is this more evident than in the galleries given over to political cartoons. The show takes its title from an 1864 engraving, by Justin H. Howard, featuring former Gen. George McClellan, then the Democratic Party’s nominee for president. Playing the part of Hamlet, McClellan is holding not the skull of Yorick but the head of Abraham Lincoln. “I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest,” exclaims the general. I’m still scratching my head over that one.

Not everything is lost in translation, said Ariella Budick in the Financial Times. Because its “most resonant images” don’t depend on such detailed context, the show “exerts a surprising grip.” Francisco Goya’s “Caprichos”—a series of black-and-white prints that send up the follies of late-1700s Spanish society—are so fascinatingly surreal that we don’t need to understand the artist’s precise targets. When you leave the show after a few hours among its panoply of human figures with “porcine snouts, reptilian bodies,” and “bulbous torsos,” you also notice as if for the first time that people all around you “conform to their caricatures.” Don’t be surprised that a passing driver wears an “Eeyore frown” or that the “stray smudge of rouge” on a woman’s cheek suddenly “represents all vanity.” The world, it seems, “offers a tableau of the ordinary grotesque.”

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