Infinite Jest

Director Thomas Campbell discusses the exhibition Infinite Jest: Caricature and Satire from Leonardo to Levine with the exhibition curators, Constance McPhee and Nadine Orenstein. Caricature has long been a "common experience" through which both artists and the public address political and social issues; sometimes, bypassing the seriousness of an issue can, in fact, "get to the heart of the matter."

Constance McPhee, curator, Department of Drawings and Prints; Nadine Orenstein, curator, Department of Drawings and Prints; Thomas P. Campbell, Director, the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Learn more about Drawings and Prints at the Met:

Learn more about today's cartoonists at The New Yorker in the film Funny Business, showing at the Met on February 28, and March 1:

Thomas Campbell: Hi, I'm Tom Campbell, director of the Metropolitan Museum, and I'm in our galleries of drawings and prints, where we've just opened an exhibition, Infinite Jest: Caricature and Satire from Leonardo to Levine, which is on until March, in 2012. I'm with the curators of the exhibition, Nadine Orenstein and Constance McPhee.

Looking around, I see you've divided the show into different themes. Could you tell me a little bit about...

Constance McPhee: Yes. Well, we start out by establishing really the language of humor—how artists conveyed humorous ideas in different ways, through exaggerating bodies, gathering faces and showing profiles, comparing people to animals or objects. We then have a section that has to do with social satire, where we see human weakness on display:  people eating too much, people gambling, extreme fashion—

Thomas Campbell: I'm amazed, for example, looking at some of the caricatures of fashion. I mean, we look at contemporary fashion and the extreme shapes—you know, we've just had our McQueen exhibition with some very exaggerated costumes—but looking at some of these, with the padding or the bustles, it makes you realize there was a long antecedence to the kind of exaggeration of the McQueen costumes.

Nadine Orenstein: I should say that a lot of the caricatures were sold in shops, print shops. People would stand outside the shops, these caricatures would be lined up in the windows, and people from all different classes would stand out there talking about them, and it really was a common point of discussion about political subjects. I mean, much the way—

Thomas Campbell: I mean, some of them are vicious.

Nadine Orenstein: Yes, and it's much the way The Daily Show or Saturday Night Live works today. It's a common experience that everybody would be talking about.

Thomas Campbell: And then you go through to political satire.

Constance McPhee: Very few people come off as perfectly pure and wonderful. We have a little section that focuses on Napoleon because he is so well known. And, in fact, caricaturists and satirists like Gillray helped to establish our contemporary view of Napoleon.

Nadine Orenstein: So there's that wonderful print of Napoleon and George III, and George III sort of looking at him as this tiny, little figure. I mean, that really sets in our mind this image of this tiny general.

Constance McPhee: Whereas actually, he was of average height but today most people would think of him as short.

Thomas Campbell: Yes, fantastic.

The show comes all the way through to the modern day.

Nadine Orenstein: Yes.

Thomas Campbell: Do you see commonalities—common threads that run all the way through?

Nadine Orenstein: Yeah. Well, people like David Levine really come out of the tradition of nineteenth-century caricature artists who made these images of well-known celebrities with big heads and very small bodies. We have, you know, a caricature of Delacroix, or a caricature of Victor Hugo by Daumier, that's very much the tradition that David Levine was following. So you really see the continuity of approaches over time, but each one building on what came before.

Thomas Campbell: I love the Levine of Claes Oldenburg as one of his own works of art.

Constance McPhee: Yes, he's shown as the soft toilet. And if you look at him closely—you think he's simply wearing a cap—but then you realize that's the toilet lid.

Thomas Campbell: I see museums come in for quite a good ribbing, as well.

Constance McPhee: Yes, they do. Crowds at exhibitions are nothing new. There are many prints, especially from the nineteenth century, when public exhibitions really were established as something people enjoyed going to for entertainment. And from the very beginning, they were crowded and popular, and some of our funniest prints show people trying to get up to the top floor of the Royal Academy Exhibition in London, tumbling down the stairs—

Thomas Campbell: That would never happen today with modern health and safety regulations!

Now, we tend to think of museums as being serious places. How do you feel a show like this fits into the Metropolitan Museum?

Constance McPhee: There's a lot of serious things going on. Humor is a very important way of dealing with some of those things, not only to give you immediate pleasure, but also to help you consider them. And sometimes it's a way of getting past being too serious and too analytical, and to actually get to the heart of the matter without even realizing it.

Thomas Campbell: Well, congratulations to you both, it's a wonderful exhibition.

It's on exhibition at the Metropolitan until March 2012. I strongly advise you to visit—it's a cornucopia of humor and satire, and there's a beautiful book that accompanies the exhibition. So come and see it. Thank you.