Graphic Cabinet 7: Very Funny!: Satire and Subversion in 18th -and 19th -Century Prints

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September 23, 2010 - January 23, 2011
Gallery 9

Exhibition Overview

The Academy’s Graphic Cabinet series continues with a look at satirical prints of the 18th and 19th centuries. During this time, the “fine” arts of painting and sculpture were subverted by artists who favored current events, daily realities, contemporary politics, and individual emotions over the dominant discourses of classicism, history, mythology, and heroism. Many of these artists were brilliant humorists, specializing in the visual pun, the outrageous scenario, and the caricatural distortion of likeness. These they used to critique humanity’s foibles, parody society’s shortcomings, and expose the duplicity of all manner of authority. To send their moralizing (though always instructive) message, they adopted the multiple, which, readily duplicated and rapidly dispersed, proliferated a popular culture of illustration in England and on the Continent.

The exhibition begins with William Hogarth (1697–1764), who serialized cautionary—and entertaining—tales of marriage, scandal, moderation, extravagance, intellectual pretense, medical malpractice, and the importance of staying sober in riotous imagery geared towards edifying the lower classes and the expanding bourgeoisie. His influence lived on in the work of George Cruikshank (1792–1878), who drolly poked fun at the lavish fashions and overblown snobbery of the upwardly mobile damsels and dandies Georgian England. In Spain, Francisco Goya (1746–1848) adapted the stock characters of English satire, depicting, in his Los Caprichos series, the prostitute, the procuress, the quack, the cleric, the soldier, and the nobleman in bizarre and lurid transactions suggestive of the ubiquity and depth of licentiousness and corruption. The exhibition concludes with the French artist Honoré Daumier (1808–1879), whose often scandalous and always hilarious lithographs for La Caricature and Le Charivari—the first illustrated journals devoted to caricature—lampooned the “liberal” July Monarchy and the bourgeois hypocrisy associated with it.

A tightly focused selection of prints from the Academy’s permanent collection, Very Funny! surveys the early history of the spoof, tracing the roots of a pictorial vernacular that endures in the comic strips, political cartoons, and animated satire of today.—THERESA PAPANIKOLAS, CURATOR OF EUROPEAN AND AMERICAN ART