November 8th, 2012 Comments Off on Caricatures

Caricature, a branch of portraiture, is much more associated with drawing and printmaking than painting and sculpture. Caricatures are humorous in nature, often affectionately playful, but they can also be merciless in their ridicule. They are generally executed rapidly, and some of the best are drawn with the fewest lines.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598 – 1680) – Caricature of Pope Innocent XI – Pen and brown ink on laid paper – 114 x 182 mm – Leipzig

Very often the portrayed doesn’t know they’re being caricatured, and the artist wishes to keep it that way. Bernini, who was deeply religious, would not have wanted his patron Pope Innocent XI to see his caricature of him. The pope, known as a sickly man, is propped up in bed, and his ant-like head is topped by a tiara, while his bony fingers signal orders. The sheet is small, and is meant for Bernini’s amusement, and for his friends. (The artist sometimes included caricatures in the margins of his letters.)

Bernini’s drawing and a drawing such as Pier Francesco Mola’s, just below,

Pier Francesco Mola (1612 – 1666) – Caricature of a Gentleman Viewing a Painting of a Monkey – Pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash on laid paper – 91 x 189 mm – Louvre

must have been satisfying to do. They must have had a therapeutic effect–there’s not much an artist can overtly do to get back at a powerful and difficult patron, but they could be cut down to size in a caricature.

The brothers Annibale and Agostino Carracci are often considered the first artists to create caricatures. An example of “ritrattini carichi” or small loaded portraits is just below. Annibale Carracci covered the sheet with little heads, some might be exaggerated likeness of real people, while others look like invented comic heads, the product of nervous doodling. As with much caricature,¬† heads are in profile allowing for the nose to be exploited to the fullest. With profile caricature, chins also get important treatment, whether exaggeratedly big or small; while with frontal caricature, the ears and eyes come into their own.

Annibale Carracci (1560 -1609) – A Series of Caricature Heads in Profile – Pen and gray-brown ink – 194 x 135 mm – British Museum

This drawing of Agostino is of mascheroni, or grotesque masks. The Carracci enjoyed crossing human and animal heads, like the ancient artists with their fauns  and satyrs. It is both amusing and disquieting. It seems like a particularly good example of grotesque heads since they are studies for gesso sculptures, the descendants of antique stucco work which came to be known as grotesque, from the subterranean grottoes where they were discovered.

Agostino Carracci (1557 – 1602) – Mascherone Studies – Red chalk – 258 x 197 mm – Albertina

The word caricature was first used in print in 1646 and ever since the 17th century, there has been a lot of discussion about what a caricature is, when the practice began, if Leonardo’s testine mostruose are caricatures or grotesques. It’s well worth reading this essay by Gombrich (link to pdf here), which discusses why caricature should be considered an invention of the late 16th century because of the growing self awareness of artists and their place in society. That may be true, but it is certainly easy to find exaggerated and comic representations of people–even real people–earlier in time. Just because we don’t know their names, does not mean they didn’t exist. The twisted, and often funny, damned in representations of the Last Judgement, Romanesque capitals with their leering heads, medieval manuscript margin drawings, and then the graffiti of hated emperors in Roman times. One can only imagine all the caricatures done on wax tablets in antiquity.

It seems logical that prehistoric man would also have found amusement in the warping of features. The sun can play atmospheric tricks making our shadow impossibly long or crushingly squat. A fire or candle’s light is usually flattering, but at the wrong angle it can grotesquely amplify features.


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