Exaggerate, said Dr. Johnson
SAMUEL Johnson defined caricature succinctly: ``An exaggerated resemblance in drawings.'' Exaggeration is the point. Without that, the caricaturist is a portraitist. Max Beerbohm in 1901 extended Johnson's brevity, though agreeing in essence: ``The most perfect caricature,'' he wrote, ``is that which, on a small surface, with the simplest means, most accurately exaggerates to the highest point, the peculiarities of a human being, at his most characteristic moment, in the most beautiful manner'' -- a defini tion that in itself, when analyzed, is somewhat ironical. How can ``exaggeration'' be ``accurate''? And can a drawing be ``beautiful'' in manner which concentrates largely on a person's ``peculiarities''? It is odd that neither definition mentions the streak that has run through the art of caricature from Leonardo's time to ours -- that of mere spite. A recently surfaced British manifestation of caricature, a TV program involving an array of rubbery puppets like Madame Tussaud's figures gone to seed, has a title that hits the head of the nail: ``Spitting Images.''
Less surprising, perhaps, is the omission by both Johnson and Beerbohm of the word ``humorous.'' Isn't caricature aimed at laughter? The answer is, surprisingly little. Over the centuries caricature has ranged from boisterous defamation to the cruelly grotesque, from a solemnly moral exposure of vices to righteous indignation. Its aims have often enough been to promote little more than the wry admission of a half-truth, the deepening of a bias, the intensification of a dislike.
Caricature has been the tool of frustrated oppositions, a mischievous resort of the defeated party, which may explain the pleasure reportedly taken by the victims of caricaturists. George IV, for instance, collected caricatures notwithstanding frequent subjection to them. Prime Minister Thatcher has deliberately gone to see herself caricatured onstage in London. Many politicians are delighted with the most savage personal caricatures, seeing them (perhaps rightly) as a kind of recognition.
In the 19th century there was a feeling that caricature had somehow lost its way in Britain, that the craft had reached its height in the bark and bite of the 18th century, but that the politeness and gentility of the approaching Victorian era progressively outlawed it as low graphic abuse. The ebullience of Rowlandson and Gillray came to look simply vulgar. Graham Everitt, in a history of caricature (1893) wrote that ``the coarseness and suggestiveness'' of the ``old caricaturists gradually disappeared '' until, in the 1830s, John Doyle ``discovered that pictures might be made mildly diverting without actual coarseness or exaggeration.'' The ``cartoon'' replaced the ``caricature.''
Much of Victorian humor, however (though it can often seem flat today), was aimed at laughter -- at the unserious, the nonsensical, the whimsical -- enjoyed for its own sake. In the development toward this new emphasis on barbless fun, one or two figures emerged who still used the exaggerations of caricature but as an innocent form of delight.
In a recent exhibition on English caricature (first at Yale and then at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London), these drawings by George Dance (1741-1825) and Alfred Edward Chalon (1761-1860) stood out -- because they are funny, but also true caricatures.
Dance's ``Man Doing the Splits'' (ca. 1780-1800) caricatures a performer (and, incidentally, a couple of musicians in the pit) during a comic interlude in a play or opera. Chalon's ``Violante Camporese'' caricatures an Italian soprano at her last public appearance in London in 1829. One can't imagine either performer being hurt (unless they had no sense of humor) by such hilarious celebrations of the peculiar exertions and distortions wrought on them by exacting performance. At the back of both drawings
there is sheer enjoyment and no spite.
Dance was himself a musician, playing both flute and violin; thus his special understanding of the musicians in his drawing. But it is in the unlikely, rotund physique of his airborne ``acrobat'' and the terrible, imminent impact when he rejoins his shadow on the boards, that the main humor resides. I find him irresistible, and a perfect instance of Dance's approach to caricature. One biography states: ``His satires were never cruel, biting, or vulgar; they were, rather, of impish or rib-poking fun.'' An
architect by profession, he found relaxation in making pencil portraits of friends and notables. His caricatures show him in an even more relaxed frame of mind. They are the forebears of Edward Lear's comic self-portraits in the 19th century, and of Hoffnung's musical caricatures in the 20th.
Chalon was a portrait painter who achieved fashionable popularity in this profession. He was a specialist in watercolor, with a spirited style, and he also painted miniatures on ivory. He was to be the first artist to portray Queen Victoria on her accession to the throne in 1837. He, too, must have seen caricature as a harmless kind of diversion. He particularly liked to practice his skills on prima donnas and ballerinas. He had a lot of fun at the expense of La Camporese's stage costume (extravagant dr ess was always a favorite subject with caricaturists) but in his singer's exultant stance, her eyes rolling heavenward, her mouth bursting with song, he has deliciously captured the outrageous fact that the gloriously sublime is only a millimeter away from the wonderfully ridiculous -- and that never is this truism truer than in the case of operatic sopranos (or possibly tenors).