Infinite Jest was published in association with a recent exhibition of graphic art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Caricature or graphic satire is, it turns out, a relatively new subject for artists. Though there are antecedents that date back to the Renaissance, its flourishing had to await the age of affordable graphic reproduction. The eighteenth century was the great age of caricature and predominantly French and English. The prints of three Englishmen, George Cruikshank, James Gillray, and Thomas Rowlandson, bulk the largest in this entertaining book. In the early nineteenth century Honoré Daumier and Francisco de Goya were also considered accomplished caricaturists.
Caricature generally involves figures with large heads and small bodies. Bodies are exaggerated: fat, thin, tall, and short. Infinite Jest suggests an eighteenth-century world of obesity, lots of rotund men and women. It may lampoon individuals or general types.
Big noses are the most prominent of the distorted facial feature. The pseudo-science of physiognomy, which flourished in the eighteenth century, believed that much was revealed about an individual by her or his facial features.
Caricature would not work so well in our age of social correctness. Much of what was mocked would today be off limits. Would we laugh at individuals suffering from consumption (tuberculosis) or dropsy (edema)? Exaggerated Negroid features? The satirist plays on stereotypes to produce his audience’s laughter; we view stereotypes as obstacles to tolerance.
Many of the artists remained anonymous. Most of the objects of their jest were also anonymous, though their vices were well known. To the various classical vices – gluttony, sloth, pride, envy, lust, and covetousness – were added drunkenness, pretentiousness, sanctimoniousness, lechery, and the macaroni.
The macarone was a young male dandy with social aspirations. When caricatured, he generally wears a huge, fashionable wig and tight fitting britches. The eighteenth century is not an age that admires and seeks to emulate a youth culture; satirists readily poked fun at the youth who showed his disdain for traditional virtues.
Fashion fanatics were favorite subjects for mockery. Fashions changed rapidly as consumers had more to spend on clothes. Clothing was designed to enhance feminine busts and buttocks, in the case of men, calf muscles, and shoulders.
Caricaturists were contemptuous of art enthusiasts. The nouveau rich who flocked to popular exhibitions at the Salon in Paris and the Royal Academy in London were often lampooned. Theater-goers were frequently mocked.
To pick two favorite prints, “Six Stages of Mending a Face, Dedicated with Respect to the Right Honorable Lady Archer” by Thomas Rowlandson, 1792. Lady Archer was a real person often mocked for her fawning over the Prince of Wales, for her love of gambling, and for her reliance on cosmetics. She is shown first unadorned, bald, toothless, lacking one eye, with sagging breasts. The next five frames depict her transformation into a heavily made-up coquette.
Another Rowlandson, “Englishmen in November, Frenchmen in November,” is a frieze of Brits seen as morose, disposed to depression, and even suicidal, at the thought of facing another dreary British winter. In contrast, Frenchmen welcome winter as a time to pursue their pleasures. One Frenchman is a corpulent monk happily eating and drinking. Men of the Church were often and easily scoffed.
There was, of course, much use of caricature and visual satire in politics. But Constance McPhee and Nadine Orenstein contend that the present-day political cartoon is not a worthy successor to the caricature. The daily cartoon in our local newspaper is less well-drawn and in black and white. In contrast the prints in their wonderful book were more carefully executed, mostly lithographs and etchings, and hand colored. They were printed on good paper, sometimes one of a series suitable for framing.
How are these caricatures to be distinguished from the twentieth-century comic books? The authors contend that there is rarely dialogue associated with the caricature. But there are occasionally verbal components and definitely there are labels and descriptive titles. They have annotated each print, explaining to us what is being mocked. Thankfully, because otherwise we would have missed most of the message.
McPhee and Orenstein’s title alludes to a line from Will Shakespeare. Certainly The Bard knew how to mock.