In December 1831, French caricaturist Honoré Daumier was persecuted for producing “Gargantua,” a satirical lithograph he made mocking corruption and profligacy in the government of King Louis-Philippe I.
The lithograph depicts the king as Gargantua, François Rabelais’s rotund and insatiable giant, seated on a commode and gobbling tax money wrung from the poor. Baskets of coins are carted up a steep ramp to the king’s gaping mouth. His cronies — also corpulent — mill about below the king waiting for the commissions and decorations that he defecates.
Louis-Philippe was not amused. The caricature was barred from publication. Its lithographic stone was destroyed and Daumier was handed a six-month prison sentence.
The Yale University Art Gallery recently acquired a print of “Gargantua,” one of only a handful in the United States, along with several other important 19th-century French satirical lithographs. Those works anchor “Seriously Funny: Caricature Through the Centuries,” an exhibit on view at the art gallery through Jan. 27, 2019.
The show contextualizes the French lithographs within the larger European and American comedic tradition, displaying them alongside prints, drawings, paintings, and sculpture — largely drawn from the art gallery’s collections — that lampoon monarchs, parody politicians, and otherwise provide wry commentary on the people, issues, and events of their day.
The show strives to prove that works of caricature and satire — often considered trivial — have lasting value and can incite important discussions of difficult subjects, said Rebecca Szantyr, a former Florence B. Selden Senior Fellow in the art gallery’s Department of Prints & Drawings, who organized the exhibit.
“It would be a mistake to dismiss these works as merely topical or to regard them as less prestigious because they are comical,” Szantyr said. “My hope is that viewers will find that the humor at work in the 35 objects presented transcends time and provides a conduit for addressing serious issues that people often choose to ignore.”
The show opens with “Three Monkeys Imitating the Laocoön,” a woodcut print by 16th-century Italian engraver Niccolò Boldrini, based off of a drawing by Titian. The image is a parody of the Hellenistic statue group “Laocoön,” which depicts the Trojan priest and his sons locked in a death struggle with serpents. The statue was unearthed in Rome in 1506 and put on display at the Vatican, where it became a popular subject for artists of the day. The print features monkeys, not humans, wrestling with the serpents.
“It’s either a commentary or inside joke among artists mocking the way everyone was copying the Laocoön so that it’s become a trope,” Szantyr said. “On the other hand, as artists, they were trained to closely observe nature and think about ideal bodies, but here, instead of art imitating nature, the apes from the natural world are imitating art.”
By the 18th century, caricature was no longer simply the product of inside jokes in artists’ workshops, but had become a popular medium for poking fun at famous figures and critiquing current events.
James Gillray’s hand-colored etching, “Monstrous Craws, at a New Coalition Feast,” on loan from the Yale Center for British Art, is one of four examples of 18th-century British caricature on view. The 1787 work depicts Queen Charlotte and King George III seated around a large tureen filled with gold coins. The royals, double-fisting ladles, are shoveling coins into their mouths. Hideous craws, shaped like moneybags, dangle from their necks.
The Prince of Wales, later King George IV, was infamous for his extravagant lifestyle and had amassed a £161,000 debt. His supporters had arranged for a parliamentary grant to pay off the prince’s debt, boost his annual income, and provide him an extra funds to reopen Carlton House, his London palace, Szantyr noted.
“John Bull’s Blood” is inscribed on the bowl of coins, indicating that the royals are feasting on public money. The scene is set in the bowels of the national treasury. The prince’s ladles are marked £60,000 and £10,000 to represent his publicly funded bounty. While his parent’s craws are bloated with gold pieces, his appears empty.
“George III was famous for being parsimonious and he had plenty of money,” Szantyr said. “Gillray’s central critique is that since the king was so wealthy, why didn’t he pay off his son’s debt? Why obtain a parliamentary grant?”
While the prince is dressed in royal finery, his parents wear peasants’ garb — a nod to their frugal reputations. Gillray clad George III in a simple dress and bonnet.
“Gillray is critiquing the lifestyle of the future George IV but he is also emasculating the king, questioning his judgment as a father and monarch,” Szantyr said.
The exhibition moves from 18th-century Britain to 19th-century France. Following the rise of the July Monarchy in 1830, Daumier and his contemporaries began taking aim at the government of Louis-Philippe, which was dominated by the wealthy French elite and former officials under Napoleon.
On view with “Gargantua” are three bronze busts from a series Daumier created caricaturing prominent figures of the July Monarchy. A lithograph by Daumier ridiculing Antoine Odier, a successful banker and businessman with political connections to Louis-Philippe, is also on view.
“Hercules Triumphant,” a lithograph by Swiss-born artist Charles-Joseph Traviès, satirizes Louis-Philippe’s “victory” in suppressing a series of riots in Paris and Lyon in 1834. Traviès compares the monarch to classical depictions of Hercules, only the king’s physique is bloated rather than chiseled. The skin of the Nemean Lion — a trophy from one of Hercules’ labors — strains to fit around Louis-Philippe’s girth. He holds a top hat full of bombs in one hand and stands over several wrecked and smoking buildings, which represent Lyon.
The show’s final section features works from the United States and Europe beginning in the late 19th century into the 21st century. Two works depict Richard M. Nixon, who was a frequent target of caricaturists over his decades-long public career.
“My Operation II,” an ink drawing by David Levine, shows Nixon pulling up his shirt to reveal a scar in the shape of Vietnam and Laos on his belly. The president presses his finger against pursed lips as if requesting secrecy. The caricature — the cover image for the March 1970 edition of the New York Review of Books — is a commentary on Nixon’s policy of secretly redirecting American troops and firepower against North Vietnamese supply lines in Laos and Cambodia. In 1966, Levine had drawn a caricature of Lyndon B. Johnson, featuring a long Pinocchio-like nose, lifting up his shirt to reveal a Vietnam-shaped scar. That image played off a photograph of Johnson showing off his scar from a recent surgery to remove his gall bladder.
“Nixon on Horseback” a 1985 bronze sculpture by Australian artist and caricaturist Patrick Bruce Oliphant, compares the former president to Napoleon, another disgraced head of state. His bulbous nose and jowls visible from underneath a Napoleon-style bicorn hat, Nixon huddles on the back of the horse like the French general retreating from the harsh Russian winter.
“There are no reins on his horse, meaning Nixon was in no position to lead,” said Szantyr. “Equestrian sculpture typically glorifies a hero, but this is not a triumphant image.”
A political cartoon by Oliphant displayed on the wall beside the sculpture shows George H.W. Bush and Boris Yeltsin, who is rendered as a Russian nesting doll.
“It shows the range for caricature — and caricaturists — in contemporary times,” Szantyr said. “Oliphant’s drawings appeared in daily newspapers, but he also elevates the genre by working in bronze, casting his caricatures in a medium of greater permanence.”