The president’s never-ending battles with the media are reported on the news every day. But if he thinks he invented the concept of “fake news,” he is wrong. For centuries, the powerful have relentlessly perpetrated the fiction that everything journalists report about them is a lie, in words or in pictures.
Two exhibits at university art galleries focus on political cartoonists of 18th- and 19th- century Europe, who every day shone a harsh light on the issues of the day and on those who held the reins of power.
Some of those commentators, such as cartoonists in France and Spain, had to deal with strict censorship that forbid them to explicitly criticize the government. Others, like artists working in England, had relative freedom of expression. Still, even British aristocracy did their best to discredit the journalist-artists who held them up for ridicule.
Caricature is portraiture that uses exaggerated physical attributes for comic effect. Think Obama’s ears, Trump’s hair, Carter’s teeth, Nixon’s nose. It is the predominant form of human imagery used in political cartooning because it sharpens the ridicule lobbed against the subjects of the cartoons.
“Seriously Funny” at Yale University Art Gallery focuses on caricature and how it has been used through the centuries. Kings known for their excesses were depicted as obese and slothful. Military men famous for ruthlessness are seen with chests ridiculously weighed down with medals, their faces red with fury.
James Gillray’s “Monstrous Craws” shows King George III and his wife, Charlotte, gluttonously eating gold coins along with their son, King George IV. The king and queen are dressed like peasants and their son like royalty, to illustrate the royal couple’s meek indulgence of their arrogant, spendaholic son.
William Charles also ridiculed King George III in an 1814 aquatint showing him making more ships to send to the War of 1812. The British cartoonist’s sympathies were pro-U.S., where he later emigrated. Charles also mocked unnamed young aristocrats in an 1806 etching, depicting them in a pack strolling on a fashionable boulevard toward a casino, wearing dark glasses and their hats covering their eyes.
French caricaturist JJ Grandville’s 1829 lithograph “Some of Our Beasts of Burden,” defended the downtrodden working classes who toiled endlessly not for their own benefit but to further enrich the already wealthy. Honore Daumier also blasted the wealthy, in his 1833 lithograph “Antoine Odier,” a portrait of a rich entrepreneur, whose caption is not “Odier” but “Odieux,” which means odious.
The most revolting and unforgettable piece in the exhibit also is by Daumier. “Gargantua” from 1831 depicts a corpulent King Louis Phillippe sitting on a toilet, being fed a constant stream of taxes. He poops out lucrative contracts, which are grabbed by government ministers gathered underneath his bottom. The poor who paid the taxes huddle in front of him, emaciated and miserable.
The image got Daumier in big trouble. Papers were seized and destroyed. The cartoonist wound up in prison. His publisher was fined and soon his paper folded. But neither of them were daunted. His publisher founded a new paper, and after Daumier got out of the clink, he started drawing again.
A small exhibit at the William Benton Museum of Art at University of Connecticut in Storrs features many of the artists seen in the Yale show, tackling other issues.
A remarkable component to the UConn exhibit is William Hogarth’s “Four Times of Day” series, which pokes fun at the 1 percent and their contempt for the poor. Hogarth took on the aristocracy, from King George III down. His series shows interactions between different classes of people, the poor desperate for attention, the rich turning up their noses, their children dressed with ridiculous extravagance.
Hogarth has his own biases, however. His work shows a touch of misogyny that spans generations: A chubby wife taps her weary husband with a fan, while her bossy daughter imitates her nasty mom, smacking her brother with a fan. Their dog, witnessing it all, hangs its head in fear.
Thomas Rowlandson, who drew cartoons in England from the 1780s to 1820s, created a potent condemnation of Napoleon Bonaparte, which must have been easy to slip past the British government, since Napoleon was the enemy. In “Nap and His Friends in Their Glory,” Rowlandson depicted The Little Corporal chowing down with a skeleton and Satan. Bonaparte toasts “to plunder and massacre.”
In Spain, Francisco Goya relied upon symbolism to point out his frustrations with then-contemporary Spanish society, but still his intentions were suspected and his work was removed from circulation. One piece from his “Los Caprichos” series is seen at The Benton, of a huge bird attacking a woman and man tied together. “Los Caprichos” criticized the ruling classes, especially those in the church, and called into question the power of superstition over rationality.
Despite his conflicts with the censors, Goya persisted in his artistic criticisms, as did many of the artists whose works are in the shows. A piece by Grandville summarized the cartoonists’ disdain for those who would silence them. A woman with a torch personifies the press. She is surrounded by fat heads huffing and puffing, trying to extinguish her flame. The caption: “Blow, blow, you will never blow it out.”
SERIOUSLY FUNNY: CARICATURE THROUGH THE CENTURIES is at Yale University Art Gallery, 1111 Chapel St. in New Haven, until Jan. 27. artgallery.yale.edu.
FROM HOGARTH TO DAUMIER: SATIRICAL PRINTS IN THE BENTON’S COLLECTION, 1720-1848 is at William Benton Museum of Art, 245 Glenbrook Road at UConn in Storrs, until Oct. 14. benton.uconn.edu.