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Thomas Rowlandson’s “Englishmen in November, Frenchmen in November” (November 25,1788), etching, hand-colored, London (all works in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art unless otherwise noted) (click to enlarge)

A humorous show chronicling the history of caricature just opened at the Metropolitan Museum. It courageously mounts numerous prints and drawings that are unabashedly ribald, biting and comic.

Anonymous 19th C. French artist, “The Fashions of 1830; A Further Degree of Perfection (Modes de 1830; Encore un dégré de perfection)” (1829), lithograph, hand-colored, Paris, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (via the Met Museum) (click to enlarge)

The show is organized into thematic clusters such as poking fun as fashionistas, making light of the art world, mocking foreigners, chiding politicians, characterizing people as unflattering animals, teasing gluttons and gawking at the grotesque. All of us bear different comic weaknesses and these groupings let viewers hone in on their favorite type of humor.

Because it’s hard not to laugh over cultural differences sometimes, Thomas Rowlandson cracks the joke that the French tend to have more fun than those puritanical worry-warts in the Anglo-Saxon world. In “Englishmen in November, Frenchmen in November” (1788), the British chaps are agitated, frightened or just plain out of it during the winter. Meanwhile, the messieurs take pleasure in indoor hobbies, the arts and gastronomy.

Francisco Goya offers more biting caricatures. In one of his prints on view, an older woman desperately tries but fails to look younger than she actually is. Another pokes fun at people that only like art because they think it makes them more fashionable. Seeing Goya’s prints juxtaposed against lighter more frivolous works like Rowlandson’s accentuates the underlying gravitas and harder edge at his style’s core.

James Gillray’s “A voluptuary under the horrors of digestion” (1792), courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (via Met Museum) (click to enlarge)

It wouldn’t be Fashion Week unless someone ripped into fashionistas for trying too hard. An anonymous French print, “The Fashions of 1830, A further degree of Perfection,” features a couple with oddly proportioned clothes. The man’s jacket looks like a parachute while Madame’s over-sized cuffs look like haute couture hot-air balloons.

On the other side of the coin, James Gillray chides the gluttons who don’t try hard enough in”A voluptuary under the horrors of digestion” (1792). His belly bulges through his suit while he sucks on a fork. It’s a cautionary joke about what can happen if you let yourself go.

Other works not pictured but worth a bracketed mention include the pope and his cardinals crying so hard that they end up wading in a pool of their tears in an anonymous Frenchman’s “The Last Papal Assembly” (1796). A wild gang of monkeys cavorting around a kitchen in Pieter van der Borcht’s “The Fat Kitchen from Monkeys” (1545).

Honoré-Victorin Daumier’s “The Past. The Present. The Future (Le passé. Le présent. L’avenir),” from La Caricature, no. 166 June 9, 1834, lithograph, Paris (click to enlarge)

Also, an intriguing polyvalent work by Daumier literalizes the metaphor that politicians are two faced or in this case three faced, “The Past. The Present. The Future” (1834).

Finally, a section explores how Leonardo Da Vinci drawings of exaggerated physiognomies, represented by “Head of a Man in Profile, Facing to the Left” from 1490-94, “went viral” in Renaissance terms. They were so widely copied that many historians now view the copies and variations as the first caricatures. As if Leonardo wasn’t already cool enough, he is now getting credit for inventing this very modern genre.

The show’s cleverly written wall tags reveal the layers of humor in each work. Although most of the images already look comic at first glance, it’s gratifying to read the label and learn the historical nuances that make the joke even funnier. It’s also endlessly entertaining to see how the curators employed euphemisms to delicately contextualize these coarse subjects. It’s a strange collision of high and low brow that ends up charmingly satirizing itself.

Infinite Jest: Caricature and Satire from Leonardo to Levine will be on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) until March 4, 2012.

Daniel Larkin

A man once knocked Daniel Larkin off his bar stool and flung mean words. He got up, smiled, and laughed as the bouncer showed him out. He doesn't give anyone the power to rain on his parade. It's more...