Making faces is funny. Kids recognize the humorous possibilities of twisted features and exaggerated expressions, as they distort their own faces in an effort (usually successful) to make one another giggle. In the hands of great artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Francisco de Goya, and Eugène Delacroix, exaggerated portraits are powerful – powerfully amusing sometimes, or, if the joke hits too close to home, powerfully distressing. The images, hilarious or horrifying, make a lasting impression.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art has assembled works of visual satire from its extraordinarily rich, yet little-known collection of satirical prints and drawings, and the exhibition of these works, Infinite Jest: Caricature and Satire from Leonardo to Levine, opens today, September 13th, in New York. The accompanying book, published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and distributed by Yale University Press, is a witty tome by curators Constance C. McPhee and Nadine Orenstein that features 165 of these works.
Evidence of drawings with caricatural exaggeration of facial features dates to ancient times, but it was Renaissance artists who, recognizing how features could be distorted for comic effect, developed academic techniques of portraiture. During the Baroque period, caricature flourished with some help from art’s greatest jack-of-all-trades, Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Since that time, caricature and satire have documented everything from social maladies to fashion foibles, leering aristocrats to inebriated peasants, demented politicians to preening dandies. Spanning six centuries (including modern masters of caricature Al Hirschfield and David Levine) and exploring such ideas as the elements of caricature, political and social satire, and caricatures of celebrities, the images gathered here offer an astonishing look into public opinions and attitudes through the centuries. They also offer the opportunity for a very satisfying, kid-like giggle.