Fantastic, Deadpan & Deadly

Metropolitan Museum of Art
James Gillray: The Plumb-Pudding in Danger;—or—State Epicures Taking un Petit Souper, showing William Pitt and Napoleon carving up the globe, 1805.

The title “Infinite Jest” gives only a partial clue to the exhibition of caricatures recently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, whose memorable quality is here recalled in a catalog of great interest. Hamlet said the words “infinite jest,” of course, in praise of Yorick, but Yorick was a jester at the court of Elsinore. That is not the same as a satirist. There may be something expansive about the very idea of jest, because it obeys no rules and draws hints from the humor of the audience.

The art of caricature, by contrast, is finite, bounded, and severe. Blake might have been speaking of caricature when he blasted the “soft” outlines of Rubens:

The Man who asserts that there is no Such Thing as Softness in art & that every thing in Art is Definite & Determinate has not been told this by Practise but by Inspiration & Vision.

A bad jest may redeem itself by having a better for its sequel. A flat or vapid or wrongheaded caricature cannot be pardoned. The province of satire is wit, and when wit goes wrong it signifies not a tactical error but a defect of mind.

The exhibition at the Met was a modest selection of the available holdings at the museum—a sampler to whet the appetite of the stroller. The handsome catalog by Constance McPhee and Nadine Orenstein is a generous record of that sample: many of the best prints are reproduced here in full-page layouts, a decent proportion in color; the sketches and plates on the half-page or in four-by-five-inch frames have been realized with unusual sharpness and delicacy.

No story about the growth of the art of caricature is extractable from the authors’ introductory essay or the 160 paragraph-long captions for the prints, but their genially informative manner captures the mood of the show. This survey hardly pretends to cover the history of a mode at once fantastic and deadpan, which was made possible by Hogarth and brought to perfection by his successors during the Napoleonic Wars. The great names of caricature—James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson, Honoré-Victorin Daumier—are all present but lightly accounted for; the span takes you from the last decades of the eighteenth century to David Levine at the end of the twentieth.

One genius of the art has been inexplicably omitted: Max Beerbohm. Yet Beerbohm’s caricatures are as inseparable from the Edwardian Age as Gillray’s are from the reign of George III and the Regency years. The victim of a Daumier or a Gillray might touch the wounded part and wonder how long it would take to heal; but Beerbohm’s models were rendered so finely and dispatched with an air so free of malice that they had…

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