Infinite Jest: Caricature from Leonardo to Levine, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

The Metropolitan Museum’s new survey of artistic mirth, Infinite Jest: Caricature from Leonardo to Levine, might provoke a connoisseurial smile or a knowing sneer, but hardly a chuckle. It’s a clever if sometimes sour exploration of human fallibility, as chronicled through the centuries by observers with deft hands and pitiless dispositions. The exhibition offers a scholarly taxonomy of techniques that artists have wielded to skewer political poseurs and to lampoon the lustful and the greedy. Satire seeks truth by means of distortion, and so the galleries bristle with porcine snouts, reptilian bodies, droopy lids, bulbous torsos, shrunken limbs and idiots grinning, leering, screaming and baring bestial teeth.

The show’s title comes from Shakespeare: finding a skull in a graveyard, Hamlet murmurs, “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.” The Chicago cartoonist Justin Howard used the line in an intricate and now virtually incomprehensible political cartoon about the 1864 US presidential election, but it’s the original context that best captures the morbid gloominess running through so much caricature. Every humorist must at some level identify with Yorick, whose jest proved all too finite.

Satirists look at life’s ordinary sins and see panoplies of excess and horror. The exhibition absorbs that point of view. It opens with Leonardo’s ink drawing, “Head of a Man in Profile Facing to the Left”, an exquisite example of what the 16th-century historian Giorgio Vasari called “teste bizarre” (“bizarre heads”). You can distinguish the chalk outlines of an earlier sketch, in which the man’s tremendous proboscis slides down to meet a protuberant chin. In the final version, his nose remains at once aquiline and eminently human, even noble. The lower lip juts into an infantile pout, and a spherical chin emerges unflatteringly from a little fold of wattle. This is no cruel parody, but a likeness of an actual man whose orneriness and experience has incised unmistakable features.

Leonardo is remembered as the student of ideal proportions, but he was equally taken with ugliness. Vasari reports that he would follow people whose faces fascinated him for an entire day before committing their beaked noses and vampiric fangs to paper. Beauty, these works imply, relies on the ugliness that gives it meaning. But the Met’s show sets aside that symbiosis between lifelike variety and haloed, uniform loveliness. Instead, it reads close observation as exaggeration and contempt.

The distinction mattered to William Hogarth, the grandfather of English satire, who produced an elaborate catalogue of “Characters and Caricatures”, the better to guide other artists towards the first and away from the second. But his lesson gets lost in the cornucopia of long snouts and slender noses, smooth cheeks and puffy jowls, simian and noble brows. The ordinary merges with parody, and Hogarth wound up accomplishing the opposite of what he had in mind, providing a menu of approaches for late 18th-century London’s most merciless illustrators, Thomas Rowlandson and John Gilray.

Rowlandson commented regularly on the fluid relationship between allure and repugnance. In one strip of six panels, a bald hag dons a wig, pops in a glass eye, slathers her face with a bucket’s worth of make-up and, presto, the Wicked Witch of the West has become the Mona Lisa. In another print, a dwarfish, wizened artist stands at his worktable surrounded by marble gods and grins at a live, lovely and pink-fleshed nude. It’s a double-edged joke: being an artist is a licence to lechery but, on the other hand, beauty is dumb without a lumpish interpreter.

The exhibition wanders widely in search of evidence to prove a couple of theses. The curators, Constance McPhee and Nadine Orenstein, claim in a catalogue essay that “what humans find innately funny has changed little over time, and so we can laugh at images made hundreds of years ago, even when their original contexts have faded”. Even so, the curators need to resurrect forgotten scandals and long-faded governments in order to explain the humorous critique.

Eventually, the arguments determine the evidence rather than the other way around. Under the rubric “politics” we see an anonymous 18th-century etching showing Louis XIV and Marie-Antoinette as a conjoined beast – his end is porcine, and he sports a cuckold’s horns; hers is hyena-like, and she is bedecked with gaudy plumage. The joke is clumsy, the artistic value scant, but it nicely illustrates the venerable technique of “reverse anthropomorphism”. A more finely tuned show might have excluded more hackwork and brought in examples by artists such as Picasso, Miró and Dubuffet, who only dabbled in caricature but did so with élan.

The most resonant images, the ones that hardly depend on context, don’t try especially hard to amuse. Francisco Goya paid homage to the English caricaturists of the 18th century, but his Caprichos are so mysterious and surreal that their messages vaporise into moral vagueness. In “Bravíssimo!” a monkey plays the guitar for an ass while a pair of hangers-on cackle appreciatively in the background. The scene could serve as an evergreen indictment of brainless musicians and ignorant audiences perverting the performing arts, but its magnetism comes from the strange tenderness between the beasts, who transcend the species barrier to establish a genuine connection.

McPhee and Orenstein point out with gusto that exaggeration lies at the heart of caricature, and it’s hard to argue with that tautological point. But the show is at its best when it focuses on astute and faithful observation. With a few brisk lines, Gianbattista Tiepolo could dash off a figure from behind and capture a whole constellation of dress, behaviour, status and pretence without showing so much as a face. In one panel, a fat nobleman’s derriere bulges out of a heavy coat, a comically skinny tail dangles from his wig and a sword knocks awkwardly against the back of his knees.

Infinite Jest exerts a surprising grip. You emerge to find that people conform to their caricatures. We don’t usually see this, maybe because we look at our fellow humans with a charitable eye, unconsciously averaging extremes of expression, or maybe we have been conditioned by glossy photographs of people who are paid to be beautiful. But a morning’s immersion in 50 years’ worth of jaundiced observation alerts the eye to the bus driver’s Eeyore frown or a Madison Avenue matron with a stray smudge of rouge on her cheek that suddenly represents all vanity. There’s no need to exaggerate: the world offers a tableau of the ordinary grotesque.

‘Infinite Jest’, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, until March 4

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