Exhibition Celebrating History of Humor in Prints and Drawings Opens at National Gallery of Art on July 15

National Gallery of Art's picture

Robert Crumb (artist, author), Apex Novelties (publisher), Zap #1, 1968, 28-page paperback bound volume with half-tone and offset lithograph illustrations in black and cover in full color, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of William and Abigail Gerdts

Washington, DC—Prints and drawings have consistently served as popular media for humor in art. Prints, which can be widely replicated and distributed, are ideal for institutional mockery and social criticism, while drawings, unmediated and private, allow for free rein of the imagination. Sense of Humor will celebrate the rich yet often overlooked tradition of humor in works on paper, ranging from the 15th to 20th century. On view in the West Building of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, from July 15, 2018, through January 6, 2019, the exhibition is organized broadly chronologically, tracing the variety of forms that comical prints and drawings have taken over time, from Renaissance caricature to British satire in the 18th century and counterculture comics of the late 1960s. Drawn entirely from the Gallery's collection, works are by artists including Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Jacques Callot, William Hogarth, Francisco de Goya, Honoré Daumier, Art Spiegelman, Hans Haacke, George Herriman, Roger Brown, and the Guerrilla Girls. Many works will be shown for the first time.

"Humor is a fundamental element of the human experience, and has too often been overlooked in the history of art," said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art, Washington. "This exhibition takes a closer look at the many ways comedic works of art—specifically works on paper—have been used to ellicit a laugh, make a critique, or reveal a truth. This exhibition would truly not have been possible without the extraordinary depth and breadth of our collection of prints and drawings."

Exhibition Organization and Curators

The exhibition is organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

The exhibition is curated by Jonathan Bober, Andrew W. Mellon Senior Curator of Prints and Drawings; Judith Brodie, curator and head of the department of American and modern prints and drawings; and Stacey Sell, associate curator, department of old master drawings, all National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Exhibition Highlights

The first section of Sense of Humor focuses on the emergence of humorous images in prints and drawings from the 15th to 17th centuries. Satires and caricatures gained popularity during this era, poking fun at the human condition using archetypal figures from mythology and folklore. While not yet intended as caricatures of individuals, Italian works reflected the Renaissance interest in the human figure and emotion. Leonardo da Vinci explored facial features and expressions in drawings like Two Grotesque Heads (1510s). Created by his pupil, Francesco Melzi, the pen-and-ink drawing of an elderly woman and man in profile appears to be more a generic type than a study of an actual figure, but shows the exaggerated features that would come to define caricature. Typical examples from northern Europe include Daniel Hopfer's Bolikana and Markolfus (early 16th century), which derives from the popular story of a clever peasant outwitting a person of higher status and education.

Several later works by Jacques Callot, the brilliant 17th-century French observer of courtly life and costume, include a vibrant pen-and-ink drawing. Satirical images referring to specific people, events, or behaviors became common toward the end of this period. These are seen in early political cartoons such as the German Allegory of the Meeting of Pope Paul II and Emperor Frederick III (c. 1470), showing the pope and emperor engaged in a wrestling match. A later Dutch etching, No Monarchy, No Popery (c. 1690) by Romeyn de Hooghe, depicts William of Orange's defeat of King James II of England.

The second room of Sense of Humor continues with works from the 18th and 19th centuries, when certain artists dedicated themselves exclusively to comical subjects. A group of etchings by William Hogarth includes Strolling Actresses Dressing in a Barn (1738), contrasting the actresses' roles as Roman goddesses with the earthly and humble preparations behind the curtain as they practice lines, mend stockings, and imbibe. While Hogarth considered himself more a comic painter than caricaturist, later British artists like James Gillray embraced caricature. Gillray's Wierd-Sisters; Ministers of Darkness; Minions of the Moon (1791) parodies Henry Fuseli's painting Weird Sisters (1783), replacingthe three witches from Macbeth with three ministers gazing at a moon with the faces of King George III and Queen Charlotte on it, concerned that the king has been declared unfit to rule after his bout of madness. Francisco de Goya, inspired in part by the English satirists, turned a scornful eye to the vices of humanity in his Los Caprichos (1799).

The development of lithography in the 19th century allowed for a new level of dissemination because prints could be reproduced quickly and affordably. Artists such as Honoré Daumier took advantage of these developments to create fierce political satires and caricatures that landed him in jail. Included in the exhibition is Daumier's Le Ventre Législatif (The Legislative Belly) (1834), a famous image that mocks the conservative members of France's Chamber of Deputies. While the identity of each politician would have been known at the time, the print continues to resonate today as a satire of politicians, generally. Satire reached the height of its influence during the 19th century and was censured as a result. In response to the threat of severe punishment and even jail, artists adapted by creating more nuanced and universal criticism of current events.

The final room of Sense of Humor focuses on the 20th century with the work of professional cartoonists—R. Crumb, George Herriman, Winsor McCay, Art Spiegelman, and Saul Steinberg—and artists—Alexander Calder, Richard Hamilton, Roy Lichtenstein, and Andy Warhol. The influence of the comic culture of the 1960s and 1970s, seen in Crumb's Zap, is reflected in the style of artists like The Hairy Who, the Chicago group that included Jim Nutt and Roger Brown and mimicked the style of comics to criticize the art world itself. Later artists like the Guerrilla Girls used humor to decry the lack of women in the art world, as in their iconic The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist (1988). In other examples, such as Hamilton's The critic laughs (1968) and Lichtenstein's Reflections on The Scream (1990), artists parodied iconic artworks.

Press Contact:

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General Information

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