The National Gallery of Art isn’t exactly a barrel of laughs. But there is enough sharp satire and cutting caricature throughout art history — and among the 120,000 works in the museum’s collection — to assemble “Sense of Humor,” a new exhibit that opened Sunday and showcases the sly humor in nearly 100 prints and drawings spanning Leonardo to R. Crumb.
National Gallery of Art, West Building, Sixth Street and Constitution Avenue NW; through Jan. 6, free.
Capricho No. 39: ‘Asta Su Abuelo (And So Was His Grandfather)’
By Francisco de Goya (published 1799)
The 80 satirical prints collected in Goya’s 1799 volume “Los Caprichos” (“The Caprices”) were like many of his paintings: subtle digs at the aristocracy that employed him. This image is “an indictment of people who take too much pride in their own heritage,” says Jonathan Bober, the museum’s Andrew W. Mellon senior curator of prints and drawings. “He’s an ass, he’s looking at a book of his family tree that is all asses [and] there’s an ass on the coat of arms. But he’s still really proud of it.”
‘Strolling Actresses Dressing in a Barn’
By William Hogarth (1738)
This etching by Hogarth, a renowned painter and social satirist of his day, was made in reaction to a 1737 English law that restricted the production of plays and tightened up censorship. His shambling tableau shows a barnyard troupe preparing to put on the airs of Roman gods and goddesses, including Diana, front and center, hitching up her britches in an un-goddesslike way. “The immediate reference is that change of law, but it’s also mocking all of serious theater,” Bober says.
‘Wierd-Sisters; Ministers of Darkness; Minions of the Moon’
By James Gillray (1791)
The popular British caricaturist and printmaker Gillray was spoofing the political intrigue of the day, with William Pitt the Younger and two other ministers awaiting the results of the waning senses of “Mad King” George III, who is depicted on the moon. But he was also parodying the style of Henry Fuseli’s famous painting of the “Macbeth” witches (albeit with a faulty spelling of ‘Weird’). “He’s the most fierce, the most biting of all the English satirists,” Bober says of Gillray. “[Eighteenth-century] political satirists were the late-night comics of their time.”
‘The Critic Laughs’
By Richard Hamilton (1968)
Hamilton, the British pop artist and collagist who designed the poster inside The Beatles’ White Album, attached a set of plastic dentures to a Braun power toothbrush and immortalized his creation with this lithograph (he even filmed a parody TV ad for his gadget). “It’s meant to be bitingly funny,” says Judith Brodie, head of the National Gallery of Art’s American and modern prints and drawings. The work seems to be alluding to sculptor Jasper Johns’ 1959 piece “The Critic Smiles,” which depicted human teeth on a toothbrush.
‘Zap No. 1’
By Robert Crumb (1968)
The cover of the first published issue of Crumb’s famed underground comic “Zap” borrowed cartoon stylings from the late 1920s and ’30s, but tossed in psychedelia, non sequiturs and commentary on the crumbling urban world befitting the late-’60s Haight-Ashbury scene from which it sprang. Famed art critic Robert Hughes once referred to Crumb as his era’s Hogarth, though Crumb’s inclusion in this exhibit probably would have made the gallery’s founders’ eyes roll, Brodie says. This issue, which Crumb completed himself, is one of four on display.
‘The Jim and Tammy Show’
By Roger Brown (1987)
What looks like a straight celebration of evangelical TV superstars Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker by late Chicago artist Brown will be ironic to anyone who remembers Jim Bakker’s sex and embezzlement scandals of the mid-to-late 1980s, when the disgraced couple became “the laughingstock of the country,” Brodie says. Like Warhol’s rendition of President Nixon, it is a portrait of personalities who don’t require the further exaggeration of caricature.