Leonardo da Vinci: Caricature of a Man with Bushy Hair
Francisco de Goya: He Can No Longer at the Age of 98
From wicked caricatures to wry satirical observations of social and political injustice, drawings have incorporated humor for centuries. A Light Touch: Exploring Humor in Drawing, on view from September 23–December 7, 2008, at the J. Paul Getty Museum at theGetty Center
The exhibition is divided into categories of humor, beginning with caricature, one of the fundamental bases of drawn humor, in which the characteristic features of the human figure are exaggerated for amusement or criticism. Leonardo da Vinci was the first artist to popularize this art form. In Caricature of a Man with Bushy Hair, Leonardo emphasizes a man’s grotesque facial features, including his unkempt hair, jagged teeth, and oversized chin and nose, to comic effect.
Innuendo used in drawings exploits a double meaning, often with the help of a written caption. For example, Francisco de Goya’s He Can No Longer at the Age of 98 shows a frail old man hobbling along with theaid of two canes. As is often the case with Goya’s drawings, a Spanishinscription of the title gives the scene its meaning—suggesting the elderlyman’s mental and physical frailty, and hinting at his sexual impotence.
The Commedia dell’Arte was a widely popular form of improvisational theater that flourished across Europe in the 1600s and 1700s. The popularity of these comic performances inspired artists to depict the satirical characters and themes of these plays, which relied heavily on visual humor. Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s Punchinellos Approaching a Woman uses one of the most popular comic figures, the Punchinello, who talks with squeaks or strange sounds and was capable of trickery, violence, and gluttony. Tiepolo’s drawing shows a group of Punchinellos accosting an apparently compliant drunken woman.
Drawings based on social and political satire are often exaggerated representations designed to denounce the plentiful vices, stupidities, and evils of humanity. Jacques de Gheyn’s A Frog Sitting on Coins and Holding a Sphere: Allegory of Avarice is an allegorical representation of the sin of avarice. de Gheyn gives the naturalistic frog the human personality trait of greed. The frog bears a haughty expression, while he grasps uncouthly for the coins between his legs. In the other hand, the frog holds a sphere, symbolic of the grasp of greed on the world.
Adding a light touch to a more serious theme creates playfulness in drawings. Guy Billout’s Quadrature, the only drawing included in the exhibition from after 1900, playfully parodies Richard Meier’s famous grid design of the Getty Center by showing a young boy dragging a stick across the enamel-covered aluminum paneling, threatening to pull the whole structure apart. This drawing appeared in the March 1998 edition of Atlantic Monthly to commemorate the opening of the Getty Center.