Detail, "Odd Characters," by Thomas Rowlandson, 1801

Detail, "Odd Characters," by Thomas Rowlandson, 1801, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Leonardo da Vinci is the kind of person to go back in time and have a drink with. While Michelangelo was a non-hygienic recluse and Raphael was an overly charming golden boy, Leonardo had a sense of humor. Even though he created the most famous painting in history (she just keeps staring…), he also had the conscientious mind to take one giant, unpretentious step back from the lofty achievement of Renaissance High Art and have some fun, as illustrated by the caricatures that annotate his legendary sketches. His famous sketchbook that delved into some of the earliest representations of modern caricature serves as the starting point for the exhibition Infinite Jest, selections of caricature from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s permanent collection. Learning about the esteemed cast of artists that have such works in their portfolios grants an interesting counter commentary to art history. Bernini (yes, that Bernini of St. Peter’s Basilica fame) was the first caricaturist to explicitly target a specific person, that being the pope. Considering Bernini is the father of Baroque and Baroque was meant to restore the defamed power of the Vatican in the 17th century, this caricature clearly suggests an elephant in the room—a brilliantly sculpted, massive bronze elephant adorned with gilt swirling putti and acanthus leaves. I guess it shouldn’t be surprising for an artist to have strong opinions (Oh hey, Diego Rivera).

"Six Stages of Mending a Face, Dedicated with Respect to the Right Honorable Lady Archer," by Thomas Rowlandson, 1792

"Six Stages of Mending a Face, Dedicated with Respect to the Right Honorable Lady Archer," by Thomas Rowlandson, 1792, Metropolitan Museum of Art

When people buy $20 caricatures at Six Flags and have them printed on coffee mugs and t-shirts, they’re probably unaware of the rich history of the subversive art form. Viewing past social satire offers an interesting perspective on the continuity of human nature in that many of the issues addressed, particularly toward fashion, are still relevant today and are actually exacerbated in contemporary society. The accompanying image is a mockery of an elderly socialite who wears wigs and applies excessive proportions of dangerous, lead-based makeup in order to appear younger. After making a few modern alterations to that statement, this sounds oddly familiar (just consult the menu at your local plastic surgeon’s office). The final phase of the caricature depicts her departing for a masquerade furnished with a mask that renders large portions of her arduous preparation completely unnecessary—kind of like when it’s humid and rainy on the red carpet at the Golden Globe Awards (schadenfreude at it’s most appropriate). Caricature is a fun medium because it can have much deeper, political and social implications, but it can also just be a comic rift on the diversity and welcomed imperfections of humanity.

"Anything Goes," copyright Squigs 2011, www.squigsink.com

"Anything Goes," copyright Squigs 2011, http://www.squigsink.com

While on the subject of caricature, you hopefully appreciated the final image of the previous post, “How to Succeed [On Broadway] Without Really Trying” (a show whose title proves to be the most cumbersome ever written and has been cursed by graphic designers and marketing associates for the last fifty years). It is a caricature by an artist who calls himself Squigs (known in more formal though less charmingly mysterious circles as Justin Robertson). His work, in the grand tradition of Al Hirschfeld, has become the unofficial soul of Broadway poster art over the last few years. It is almost a revivalist approach to the craft, since many theater caricatures have become more stylized glamour shots than comically distorted cartoons (people aren’t normal, and they shouldn’t be depicted as such). In 2009, Broadway sweetheart Sutton Foster received a caricature at the iconic Sardi’s that looked like a Photoshopped fashion magazine cover rather than a cartoon playing with her delightfully goofy features that aid in making her the standout comic actress that she is. Squigs reverts back to the exaggeration, clustered grouping, and dramatic elongation that characterize classic theatrical caricature.

"Kristen Chenoweth," copyright Squigs 2011, www.squigsink.com

"Kristen Chenoweth," copyright Squigs 2011, http://www.squigsink.com

While there are other illustrators today working in the same vein, there’s something about the colorful exuberance of Squig’s pieces that more accurately capture the dynamic personality of Broadway (cue the jazz hands). His technique brings a contemporary touch to the classic art form with its bold, colorful tone that further develops the animated personalities of the already larger-than-life personas. The facial construction of individual performers shows a personal, intimate knowledge of the community while often representing what appear to be personality traits rather than physical features. There is a true theatrical passion instilled in the drawings that perfectly embodies the spirit of the show it is depicting, as each composition explodes from the epicenter in intersecting geometry that links the characters emphatically. In a unique spin on the ephemeral nature of live theater, it’s like viewing the entire show all at once—two hours and forty five minutes of tap dancing distilled into one, visually-pleasing punch in the face.

Suggested wine pairing: Regular wine seems to lack the appropriate energy (I’m talking about the liquid in the glass, not the consumer after the third round), so let’s add some spirited carbonation with a classic wine spritzer.

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