BY Jonathan Jones in Frieze | 05 MAY 01
Featured in
Issue 59

Character Witness

Art & caricature

BY Jonathan Jones in Frieze | 05 MAY 01

Among Leonardo da Vinci's notes on art, science, the weather, and everything under the sun, is a brief essay on how to remember a face. He recommends that you (the artist) first memorize the various kinds of eyes, noses, chins, mouths, necks and shoulders. There are, for example, ten categories of nose: the straight, the bulbous, the hollow, the prominent, the aquiline, the regular, the simian, the round and the pointed. In order to remember these different types (and there is comparable variety amongst the other features) you should draw each variation from nature to fix it in your mind; carry the drawings with you in a small notebook so that when you see a face, you can tick off the types of nose, ear, throat that match it and so have an instant guide from which you can reconstruct their appearance later. Yet there is one kind of face that renders irrelevant this photofit procedure: 'of abnormal faces I here say nothing', wrote da Vinci, 'for they are kept in the mind without difficulty'. 2

It was to draw this kind of face that the artist, according to Vasari in The Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1568), used to stalk extraordinary looking people through the streets of Florence and Milan; he so delighted in 'certain bizarre heads' that he would follow one all day and then go home and draw it as if from life. 3

Da Vinci himself refers in his notes to the faces of the deformed and the different, with a kind of awe. His brief record of Giovannina, a woman with a 'face of fantasy' whom he saw in a city hospital, has a note of wonder, almost reverence. Da Vinci's notebooks contain a large number of drawings of grotesque faces; Vasari collected them, and so did a lot of other people. Indeed, as Sir Kenneth Clark lamented in his 1939 biography of da Vinci, 'for three centuries these were the most typical of his works, familiar in numerous engravings. Today we find them disgusting, or at best wearisome.' 4

In the 1960s everyone wanted a nose job. It was what you did. It was ironing out the messy, complicated face, the face that came with a history attached. Thomas Pynchon in chapter four of his novel V (1963) narrates the procedure - Esther's nose job. Pynchon makes this discreet adjustment another stage in the Modern world's progressive degradation of the human. He relates how Esther's plastic surgeon learned his art after seeing the World War I pilot he idolized crash his plane and emerge from the wreckage 'the worst possible travesty of a human face lolling atop an animate corpse. The top of the nose had been shot away; shrapnel had torn out part of one cheek and shattered half the chin. The eye, intact, showed nothing.' 5 The young pilot was then subjected to experimental plastic surgery - this was 1918 - that left him with an ivory nose, a silver cheekbone and a celluloid chin.

That is, he was turned into a painting by Otto Dix. The Berlin exhibition 'Art in Germany in the Twentieth Century' (1999) made this point crudely but effectively by showing film footage of faces destroyed in World War I alongside the savage cut-ups of Dada. By the 1960s, the remaking of faces was no longer just an extreme solution in cases of facial injury but a consumer choice. In Andy Warhol's painting Before and After (1960), first exhibited in a New York department store window, a woman is shown on the left with a characterful nose, and on the right with it reduced to a fashionable size.

A caricature is a travesty, a parody of a human face, a representation that begins with the observed details - a big chin, a thyroid stare - and then elaborates them into gross contortions. A travesty, however, implies an ordered original, and to caricature the face is to assume a perfect human form. As he analysed the ideal proportions of the human figure, da Vinci saw the task of the artist as the delineation of beauty. His studies in the 'abnormal' face are his holiday from all this, the underside of his art.

This night-time side of da Vinci's imagination haunted Western culture in the centuries after his death. His observations of the malformed and the exceptional in the hospitals and streets obsessed artists and collectors, giving rise to the cult ofcaricatura. As early as 1525, da Vinci's drawings of fantastic faces had inspired a northern artist, probably Quinten Massys, to paint the Grotesque Old Woman (1525-1530) now in London's National Gallery. This painting in turn provided Lewis Carroll's illustrator John Tenniel with his model for the Ugly Duchess in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865).

But it was in the 18th century that caricatura became a cult. It was practised in painting as well as drawing and printmaking, and flourished as an aesthetic game among cognoscenti acutely aware of its origins in Italian Renaissance art. To the moralising novelist and social reformer Henry Fielding it was an aristocratic frippery. In his preface to Joseph Andrews (1742) Fielding contrasts the realist art of his friend William Hogarth (and, by analogy, his own satirical novel) with the freeform games of the caricaturists: 'in the caricatura we allow all licence. Its aim is to exhibit monsters, not men; and all distortions and exaggerations whatever are within its proper province.' 6

Hogarth was tickled pink by Fielding's argument that his, Hogarth's, comic art was serious, true to life and hence purposeful, in contrast to the ludicrous extremes of caricature. When he published a subscription ticket (the receipt given to those who sign up for an as yet unpublished work) to his new series of six painted and printed narrative scenes, Marriage à la Mode (c. 1743), he illustrated it with a hilarious array of 'Characters and Caricaturas'.

But which are which? The key along the bottom of the print identifies clearly the difference between a 'character' and a 'caricatura'. On the left are portrait faces copied from Raphael, the supreme academic icon of 18th-century artists; on the right are caricaturas copied from da Vinci and his imitators. But in the sea of periwigged heads that floats above this caption, where does reality end and fantasy begin? What is 'normal'? Hogarth's faces exhibit a rich variety of long, broken, squashed and pug noses; distended chins; fat, shrunken and creased cheeks; faces crushed and stretched, porcine, Janus-like, grinning, warty and cruel. They are the faces of 18th-century London, faces in the crowd, and they are grotesque. But Hogarth intends this to be taken as the real rather than the fanciful. His drawings are visually faithful portraits of men you can see everyday coming out of the brothels in Covent Garden. It's the people themselves who are walking caricatures.

Hogarth's claim to be revealing truth rather than indulging in visual fantasy laid the foundations of Modern caricature. The same will to truth is what gives James Gillray's political caricatures their savagery. These images, published in the age of the French Revolution, are the very definition of caricatura as defined dismissively by Fielding: there are no rules of decorum whatsoever in Gillray's art, no limits to the liberties taken. Pitt the Younger becomes an emaciated stick of a creature, eating gold and shitting paper as the Napoleonic wars consume the national treasury; Voltaire is an old hag, tending the demonic furnace of revolution. Yet there is the deadly serious claim that each of Gillray's wild disfigurations of the human form reveals a truth about the subject of the satire; in this fairground mirror we see the truth at last.

In newspapers the political cartoon frequently occupies a space next to the leader column, the most serious and responsible part of the paper, where it nestles among the heavy-weight political commentators. These cartoons occupy a libidinal zone that is the opposite of everything around it: visceral, violent, irrational, irresponsible. Caricatures twist, tear and shred the bodies of national figures. Steve Bell's William Hague in The Guardian has a face so compressed and inhumanly distorted it seems to be the result of anamorphic projection, an interloper from another reality. This visual destruction of a political opponent has very old roots indeed. One ancient Egyptian relief, representing an invasion of the neighbouring land of Punt in the middle of the second millennium BC, depicts the defeated enemy queen with an immense malformed bottom, bent spine, squat legs and layers of loose skin on her body - in contrast to the elegant, sleek bodies of the Egyptian victors. 7Judged by the highly ordered visual system of Egyptian art, she is a grotesque outsider. Her representation is a form of visual violence, perhaps even malevolent magic. A caricature.

In his 1928 book Kunst und Rasse (Art and Race), the German critic Paul Schultze-Naumburg juxtaposed reproductions of Modernist portraits by Modigliani and others with photographs of people with physical and mental abnormalities. In 1937, this perspective on Modern art was to reach its conclusion in one of the best-attended exhibitions of all time: the 'Entartete Kunst' (Degenerate Art) show in Munich, at which the Nazis presented Modern art as a sick joke, much to the delight of the public. But why, looking at the pictures in Schultze-Naumburg's book today, are we still shocked? Where does the obscenity lie? If it is in the idea that Modernism's distortions resemble the supposedly 'abnormal' human face, then the Nazis have won - we share their loathing of human plurality.

The Nazi caricature of Modern art contained a truth. Modernism rediscovered something of da Vinci's wonder at the prodigious, the monstrous in what makes us human; it celebrated the face as a hideous mask. However, Modernism's pious protectors after World War II suppressed this comic, liberating quality, still recognised by generations of newspaper cartoonists.

Paris 1906, and Pablo Picasso can't finish his portrait of Gertrude Stein. He has been preoccupied with the painting since they first had dinner together in the autumn of 1905. According to Stein, she sat for him no less than 90 times. She is his patron but also a creator (a writer) and a woman of extraordinary, monumental presence; a gay woman who fascinates the insistently heterosexual Picasso, a self-created fabulous creature of the new century. Stein's own writing, with its games of identity, is a formal and regal mask. Picasso gives up on her portrait after a series of intense, frustrated sessions at his studio in the Bateau Lavoir. 'All of a sudden', Stein writes, '... Picasso painted out the whole head. "I can't see you any longer when I look", he said irritably. And so the picture was left like that.' 8

Picasso visits an exhibition of ancient Iberian art, including archaic and mask-like carved heads, at the Louvre. Then, in the summer of 1906, he stays in Gósol, a village in the Pyrenees, and delves deeper into the idea of an archaic art heritage, an art of primitively hewn faces. When he returns to Paris, he goes back to the portrait of Stein, perhaps inspired by Iberian art, perhaps by the aged and weather-hardened faces of the peasants he met in Gósol. Stein's face becomes a stone mask roughly wedged into her body, something savage, crude and god-like. It is a caricature without a referent, with the outrageous liberty that Fielding attributed to caricatura; it is a study of the face as freakish sculpture. In Picasso's portraits Stein is as mysterious and potent as an Easter Island deity; sitting square in an old armchair, her face is a grafted, deadpan totem.

After Kunst und Rasse, the most loveless images of the 20th century must surely be by Diane Arbus, those photographs in which people's delusions are exposed as laughable and pathetic; pictures that reveal reality itself to be caricature of the meanest kind. Caricature has come to mean something dry, incomplete and miserly; 'you're caricaturing me'. But to da Vinci, who had no satirical intentions, it was clearly something more childlike - a recognition of the strangeness and wealth of human form. His note on Giovannina, face of fantasy, is touching. He is expressing admiration. To possess a face like that is to be a walking prodigy, to be someone unique under the sun.

1. The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, trans. Edward MacCurdy, New York, 1958, p. 1014.
2. Ibid, p. 883.
3. Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects, trans. Gaston du C. de Vere, London, 1996, pp. 630-31.
4. Kenneth Clark, Leonardo da Vinci, London, 1993, p. 120.
5. Thomas Pynchon, V, London, 1975, pp. 98-99.
6. Henry Fielding, Joseph Andrews, London, 1981, p. 27.
7. Egyptian Museum, Cairo, JE 14276-89661; F. Tiradritti, ed., The Cairo Museum: Masterpieces of Egyptian Art, London, 1999, p. 165.
8. Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, New York, 1961 (first published 1933), p. 53.