Saturday, 17 December 2016

Caricatures - Mocking with Art

I'm not really sure if the four paintings that I have posted in the title are strictkly caricatures, but they were on display at the Caricature museum in Frankfurt (which in German is the Museum für Komische Kunst) so I guess they should fall into the category of Caricature (because why would a caricature museum have such paintings on display if they were not caricatures). Anyway, I visited the museum the first night I was in Frankfurt and what was cool was that the concierge suggested that I come back at 8:00 pm (the museum closed at 9:00 pm) because then I would get in for half price - which is what I ended up doing, and while I was waiting I headed off to a pub that happened to be nearby (which was the plan all along, and fortunately for me daylight saving in Europe stretches out to beyond 9:00 pm).

Mind you, I do sort of wonder what the purpose of a 'comic museum' is since you can pretty much find any number of comics on the internet, or even in the local paper. Further more some of the famous comic strip artists (such as The Far Side, Calvin and Hobbes, and of course The Peanuts) compiled their works into books for the consumerist public. In fact, some of them even produced other items, such as cups, plates, and even wall hangings of some of the more popular cartoons. In another way comics would probably fall into the realm of Pop-art, which while having some merit in and of itself (I have developed an appreciation for the works of Andy Warhol), in the end doesn't seem to carry the majesty of the works of the old masters. This comic that I found on the internet seems to sum up people's attitude towards art:

Yet here we have a museum dedicated to the art of the newspaper's funny pages and the work of political cartoonists the world over. Okay, maybe there happens to be places in the world were you are simply not going to get away with drafting a cartoon of a ruler or a prestigious figure, and sadly it seems that France was one of those places, considering what happened to the creators of Charlie Hebdo (which I now realise that I didn't keep an eye out for a copy of one when I was over there, though I also note that it seems to have fallen back into the realm of obscurity that it existed in prior to the attacks on their offices), and while that may be true in some of the dictatorships around the world, one would expect more freedom in a place like France.

What is a Caricature?

Well, the simple answer to that is to go to the suppository of all wisdom that is Wikipedia to find out that they have to say. The opening to their page on Caricatures simply says that it is a 'rendered image showing the features of its subject in a simplified or exaggerated way through sketching, pencil strokes or through other artistic drawings'. Personally I think that sums it up pretty well, and we don't need to go on to the famous caricaturists, the history of the caricature, or a list of caricature museums (though I should mention that they also have one in Warsaw and Mexico City, though the only reason that I visited this one was not due to a burning desire to visit a caricature museum, but rather that it looked, and sounded, interesting - and I get in at half-price). 

However, I probably should show you the caricature on Wikipedia that was voted as the most famous one, which is entitled 'The Plump Pudding is in Danger' and shows a cartoon of Napoleon and Lord Pitt carving up the world:

The cartoon was produced in 1805, which was around the time of the truce between Napoleon and England (with William Pitt being the Prime Minister of England at the time). This is obviously a criticism of the peace that was arranged, particularly since Napoleon, and the French in general, were seen as the bad guys. In a way what we are seeing in an early 19th Century conspiracy theory with the suggestion that the world is being carved up between the two great powers, with Napoleon taking Europe for France (and Napoleon had pretty much conquered a large swath of Europe at the time) and England taking the oceans. In a way it does suggest that the peace is actually a capitulation on behalf of Lord Pitt, and doesn't deal with the problem of Napoleon. Notice also how Pill is rather tall and sitting comfortably on his chair, while Napoleon is incredibly short - one of the reasons (actually the main reason) why Napoleon is believed to be short - the multitude of caricatures that were appearing in British Newspapers and Journals at the time.

As for caricatures, it does seem that the trend started to arise during the 18th century, but that had a lot to do with the rise of the middle class and their literacy, as well as the appearance of Newspapers. In fact around that time there were a huge number of newspapers, nothing like the concentrated mess that we are confronted with today (though if you wander into a newsagent then you will still notice the huge number of magazines on sale, even though most of them are owned by the handful of media companies). However, what we do have these days is the bloggosphere, where anybody (like me) can start posting things on the internet for everybody to see. Mind you, the catch is that people have to be able to find it, and that difficult in itself (and with Facebook's war against 'false' news, this might create even more problems).

So, I guess I should speculate on why people use caricatures - well, I guess it is the same reason as to why people use comedy to make important points, and is one of the reasons why Michael Moore was so successful: comedy actually gets its point across. Okay, I probably shouldn't bring Michael Moore into the equation because I'm actually not a huge fan, but the thing is that people don't want to be confronted with facts, especially uncomfortable facts, rather they want to be entertained. However, I'm not entirely sure if it is supposed to work as intended. In my mind what it is doing (and this is the main reason why I don't like the Simpsons) is that it trivialises important things. For instance, and using the Simpsons as an example, we have a small town with caricatures of quite a few stereotypes. The thing is that some of these characters are pretty shocking - Mr Burns and Reverend Lovejoy for instance. However, what the show does (and the Simpsons is a classic for caricatures) is that it makes these serious problems - such as the unadulterated greed of the billionaire class, and the hypocrisy of the religious class - non-issues. In fact, it simply turns it into a laughing matter, which means that we aren't angry about what is happening, and simply let things go on as they always have been, namely because the caricature is painting this as a normal, and rather humorous, way of life.

Politicians with Big Noses

While there is some elements of caricature in shows like The Simpsons, in reality they fall more under the definition of satire. In a way satire and caricatures are two sides of the same coin - satire tends to take the form of writing, or a story, while caricatures tend to (but not always) take the form of static art. Where the two styles meet are probably in shows like the Simpsons (and similarly with Futurama). I would probably throw Family Guy in there as well, but that seems to be much more low brow than proper satire (as exemplified in works by Jonathon Swift). However, the one thing that satire tended focus on was the actions of politicians, though interestingly it is really only in the democracies that the caricaturist was able to survive (though some where very, very subtle in their works, or they simply poked fun at those who were not in power).

In a way this is why the work of the satirist and the caricaturist were able to develop in places such as American and England - there was a freedom of expression, even if it was only implied. Sure, some authors, such as Swift, were still very subtle in their work, or poked fun a people that didn't have the influence to be able to make their life miserable (and during war the enemy has always been a suitable target, as well as the Irish). However, despite there being some semblance of a democracy (even though it could be considered fledgling), in a way Britain for much of the 18th Century was effectively a one party state ruled by Robert Walpole: he seemed to have a habit of winning elections (much in the way that the Liberal Party seems to be able to do here in Australia).

Mind you, while there was some form of parliamentary representation in England which had the effect of reigning in the powers of the king, it didn't necessarily make it a proper democratic government. Not only was the vote restricted to a very small minority (usually white males who owned a certain amount of property), the House of Commons, so called because it was made up of commoners, had to deal with the House of Lords, so called because it was made up of aristocrats appointed by the king. While these days the House of Lords pretty much acts as a rubber stamp, back then it had a lot more influence. However, despite all of these problems (and especially with the existence of 'Rotten Boroughs', which were electorates where there was basically only a single voter, who was usually the person representing the borough), England did operate fairly smoothly (that is until Lord North came along and upset the colonies to the point that they revolted).

Anyway, that was a bit of a digression, but anyway here is an image of Robert Walpole that was doing the rounds at the time.

Celebrity Caricatures

The museum (or should I call it an art gallery, though it seems that only Commonwealth countries have art galleries that don't sell art, though even that is incorrect because Singapore follows the non-British tradition is calling Art Galleries museums) had two levels, and I suspect that the displays in both of the levels were temporary (though since I am not an inhabitant of Frankfurt I cannot actually say for sure). Anyway, the ground floor had drawings mainly of celebrities, however interestingly enough they weren't caricatures in the traditional sense, which makes me wonder why it was that they happened to be in a caricature museum. My suspicion is because they happen to be famous, and also happen to be modern. Okay, not all of them are strictly modern, but they at least existed in my life time, and have been strutting their stuff while I have been alive. However, even though the subjects are famous, they aren't created in the way that a proper caricature is created - that is that their features are exaggerated.

Sean and Leo for example.

And Bruce

Which leads me to the point that the thing that stands out with regards to Bruce is that the older he becomes, the shorter his hair becomes, until we reach a point where it has been pretty much all shaved off.

Anyway, there was also a caricature of the one and only lead singer of Black Sabbath, Ozzy Osborne, doing what Ozzy Osbourne does best:

Since I have posted a picture of Ozzy on this post I simply have to include one of their songs:

I should mention that even though I have included a video, and a picture, of Ozzy on this post I am not that huge a fan namely because when Ozzy and Black Sabbath decided to get back together and do a world tour I decided not to go to the concert. However, I'm one of those people that tends to develop an interest in a band, or a singer, long after I have any chance of seeing them live (or as with the case of David Bowie, within two weeks of him dying).

Still, even though they did happen to have a collection of portraits of celebrities on the ground floor, I am inclined to say that they aren't actually caricatures in the traditional sense - they are portraits. In my mind caricatures tend to be mocking, and more importantly mocking people that happen to have some influence over the direction of society. Sure, celebrities happen to be in the spotlight, but unlike politicians, they have a different role in society - the politicians are the ones that set the scene and make the important decisions, the celebrities simply entertain us and distract us from what is really going on.

Oh, and while this may not be a picture of a Celebrity, it is one that did capture my attention, entitled "Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, on Ice". While I could speculate on its meaning (and in a way am tempted to do so), I think I'll just leave it as is.

And of course, we have these guys who, unlike most celebrities and rock stars, seem to have worked out how to live the rock and roll lifestyle, and live to a ripe old age to be able to tell their grandchildren all about it.

Mocking the Rulers

One of the things that I have mentioned is how artists, and commentators, use caricatures to comment on, and criticise, the political rulers. While such actions may work in a democracy, this isn't always the case everywhere, and even in some countries that are democracies, making comments can get you into a lot of trouble. It is why the caricature is such a good way (as long as you can get away with it) of poking fun at political leaders. The problem with a caricature museum in Germany is that it can require knowing, and understanding, the intricacies of the German political system to understand the caricature.

Take this for instance:

Okay, I'm sure we all know what that symbol represents, but who that guy is (I suspect that he is the CEO of the company), and why he is pushing it up a steep incline, I have no idea. Possibly it has something to the with Mercedes being in some sort of trouble, but because I am not German, and don't know anything about what Mercedes was going through (and also since I didn't take a photo of the title of the caricature either) what this cartoon is poking fun at is beyond me.

This one sort of makes a little more sense namely because I recognise the Cologne Cathedral, and the two clown hats of the SPD and the CDU (the two major political parties in Germany). I guess it is suggesting that there is an interconnection between the church and state, and in a way the parties are simply two arms of the same organisation - but this isn't a conspiratorial, world conquering, connection, but a rather comical one where all parties - the church and the state as represented by the two political parties, are simply little more than jokes. However, it is interesting that despite the fact that Europe is a pretty secular entity in and of itself that the perception of the church having such influence in German politics is surprising. However why he is holding a beer is a little confusing, but maybe it simply refers to the comic, indulgent ruling class rising out of the putrid of its own making.

The other problem that I encountered was a problem of language. Sure, I know a bit of German, and according to Duo Lingo I hav a 25% fluency (though that is according to Duo Lingo, and while I might get answers right there, it is completely different when I have to read the language, or even speak it, without assistance, though my ability to read is much better than my ability to speak), but that doesn't necessarily mean that I can actually understand the intricacies of the language, particularly when it comes to political commentary and cartoons. You'll actually find the same problem when attempting to communicate with non-English speakers, especially when you are using slang.

Anyway, here is an example of one of these cartoons, which basically makes no sense unless you can understand the caption (which in all honesty I don't):

Anyway, before I finish off, here are some more caricatures that were on display at the museum including this one of Santa, which no doubt paints a much more sinister picture of the jolly old man from the North Pole who travels the world delivering presents to everybody, though in this multicultural and globalised world, we do have a tendency to forget that there are an awful lot of children out there who don't believe in Santa and aren't from a Christian background, which goes to show that no matter how much we try to secularise Christmas, it is still a Christian holiday and Santa is still a representative of Christianity, even though people like to claim that Santa is nothing more than an anagram of Satan who exists only to distract us from the birth of Christ - maybe that is why Santa looks so sinister in this picture because his ultimate purpose is to overrule the true meaning of Christian.

And here is another one that I have no idea as to the meaning of because, well, I'm not German, I just speak the language.

Though this one may be a bit more familiar, or at least the actors in it:

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  1. My take on the Mercedes cartoon is that it is engaging in the labor of Sisyphus, condemned to roll the rock up the hill, only to have it roll down again and again.

    Also, my take on the role of satire and caricature is that by making the ills of society humorous, we defang them to a degree. As Oscar Wilde once said about war: "As long as war is regarded as wicked, it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as vulgar, it will cease to be popular." Perhaps this is why satire has struggled outside of free societies. Criticism is bad enough, but all autocrats fear being made to appear ridiculous. (Witness our current president-elect here in the USA...)

  2. Hit enter too soon. Witness our current president-elect here in the USA and his ongoing feud with Saturday Night Live.

  3. Thankyou for you comment. I should have picked the connection with Sisyphus up, being an lover of all things Ancient Greek. Still, the connection with Mercedes is still beyond me.

    This feud with SNL is a bit worrying, though knowing comedians the more you react the more they make fun of you. Love the Oscar Wilde quote though.

    1. Just an educated guess about the Mercedes cartoon. It would undoubtedly help to know who the person is meant to be, but assuming he is a political figure (which seems likely) or representation of a group or idea, it would be probably that the state (or union, or something) is continually having to try to bail Mercedes out, but it never succeeds long term. Knowing the European Corporatism, this is at least a likely meaning. Germany keeps pouring money and support into Daimler-Benz, but...
      Thinking back to the utter bath that Daimler took on Chrysler a few years back, ye gods! I imagine there was a certain unhappiness in Germany of that.

    2. It sounds like the situation as it was here in Australia - for the car companies to remain competitive they needed government subsidies, but the government had no choice but to subsidise the car makers because to let the pull out would result in to many job losses. As it turns out the government cut the subsidies and now Australia no longer has an auto-industry. I suspect we have a similar situation in Germany.