A caricature can be a beautiful thing; the ambitious, ingenious, and slightly anxious exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, Celebrity Caricature in America, emphasizes the sociology of celebrity, and mingles the remarkably beautiful work of Al Frueh, Miguel Covarrubias, Ralph Barton, and William Auerbach-Levy with that of a score of artists a shade or two less absolute to produce a plethora. Everything is done to make the show intelligible and appealing to the multitudes who never heard Caruso sing, followed Babe Ruth’s exploits, saw John Barrymore in a play or Mae West in a movie.
The first rooms are piped with jazzy, Astairish music from the entre-deux-guerres era, when celebrity is supposed to have ripened into its modern form; photographs of those caricatured are helpfully placed high on the walls; a corner of Sardi’s lined with framed caricatures is reconstructed; the back rooms are enlivened by some continuously running cartoons from the 1930s by the Disney and Warner Brothers studios, in which animated caricatures of film stars consort with the likes of Donald Duck and Bugs Bunny.
As a child who went to the movies with his parents at the age of three and was empowered to go alone to the neighborhood theater from the age of six, I found the cartoons—seen again after a gap of sixty years—a thrilling return of lost vistas. But my cultural horizon fell short of such early-twentieth-century theatrical figures as Donald Brian, Julia Marlowe, John Drew, and Raymond Hitchcock; nevertheless I could admire the beautiful economy of Al Frueh’s renderings of their once wildly recognized countenances. A celebration of celebrity turns out to be, with enough lapsed time, a demonstration of celebrity’s impermanence—a melancholy study in our essential obscurity. The subject of the caricature sooner or later melts away, leaving us, as with Tutankhamen or Ozymandias, or as with the judges drawn by Daumier and the cabaret performers caricatured by Toulouse-Lautrec, the art only. Art has the capacity to outlast fame, though the artist in life must bow to the famous.
It was the happy fate of several periodicals relatively early in the century, foremost the Vanity Fair that ceased publication in 1936, to publish caricatures of extraordinary merit. A very young Mexican, Miguel Covarrubias—who later went on to become a leading archaeologist, ethnologist, and folklorist in his native country, and to die young at fifty-three—lifted caricature, in the Vanity Fair of the Twenties and Thirties, onto a new plane, though of course he had predecessors and near-equal rivals. The Italian Paolo Garretto, cleverly using airbrush and paper cutouts, produced Vanity Fair covers and illustrations of arresting simplicity and stylistic daring; his exuberant 1934 gouache of Al Smith is the Washington show’s signature piece, and his streamlined representations of Thirties “strong men,” from Mussolini and Hitler to Gandhi and La Guardia, form a historical record of sorts. But compared to Covarrubias he is a mere toymaker; he had little of the Mexican …