“I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest.” Hamlet
Down through history, artists have often looked to the lighter side of life when seeking out subjects for their works. Even Leonardo da Vinci exaggerated the features of a man he was sketching. To train a spotlight on these creative and lighthearted etchings and drawings, the Metropolitan Museum searched its archives for its new exhibition, Infinite Jest—Caricature and Satire from Leonardo to Levine. “Humor is not something you would associate with an exhibit at the Met,” said Constance C. McPhee, associate curator, who, along with Nadine M. Orenstein, curator, both from the museum’s department of drawings and prints, organized the exhibit. McPhee and Orenstein unearthed a “plethora” of works and actually had a hard time making final choices.
Infinite Jest focuses on works from the 18th and 19th Centuries, the “golden age of caricature in France and Britain,” said McPhee. The exhibit’s title, Infinite Jest, originally from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, was used in a 1864 Civil War print that showed the Democratic Presidential candidate, General George McClellan, as Hamlet, with his opponent, President Abraham Lincoln, as the exhumed skull. The quotation from Hamlet made its way onto the print.
Caricature is taken from the Italian carico and caricare, “to load,” and “to exaggerate,” by distorting a person’s physical characteristics. Artists combined this exaggeration to create works that carried personal, social, or political meaning. The exhibit is divided into four sections, the first serving as an introduction to the world of caricature. The second section is devoted to eating, drinking, gambling, male and female fashion, art, and crowds.
Politics comes in for its share of satire, featuring everything from the American and French revolutions to Napoleon’s conquest. “Napoleon was five foot seven, yet we think of him as being short,” McPhee noted, the result of the way he was drawn in these caricatures. The fourth section shows people as animals and objects, including P.T. Barnum as a humbug monkey.
Infinite Jest—Caricature and Satire from Leonardo to Levine
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Through January 9, 2012