Laugh To The Left

In the visual arts, the laugh, the ridicule and caricature have a certain regime, which is rather different from the one developed in literature, mainly because it is an expression of criticism and contempt much more immediate and politically engaged. Starting in Germany by the 15th century, and spreading afterwards in a tremendous manner, the satiric prints, further multiplied and diversified by the invention of the typography, played a truly significant role in awakening the popular irony and its more serious outcome, the social criticism. Popular revolutions and religious reforms depended on the criticism transcribed as caricature on printed matter aiming at the largely analphabet population of the time.Precisely because of this old connection between caricature and social criticism, the humor in art, especially in the case of drawings and prints is intimately connected with a leftist propensity, taking the class division and the subsequently emerging struggle as a basic point of interest. This is why humor in art turns commonly to a grin to the left. The literature is usually targeting learned people, able to read the text and grasp the derision sheltered in it, which is frequently wrapped in multifarious veils turning sometimes the laugh into a complicated process of interpretation and a subsequent evaluation of the implied or codified cues. Humor in literature is essentially a time-involving device with a delayed efficacy. Contrariwise, laugh in the arts is the immediate effect of a figure or an image striking the eyes and the internal sense of humor as self-evident and compelling. A good caricature always succeeds to raise smiles in its favor from the first sight, while a written satire could pass even unnoticed if the competency of the reader is inferior. Laugh in the arts, even if frequently shallow, is nonetheless bursting, seducing the eyes and unfastening the mind. One may even wonder if so many pre-historic cavern drawings and other artistic anthropomorphic artifacts with conspicuously exaggerated physical traits and quaint countenances are just totemic, religious elaboration, or they comport also a definite, conscious and mastered humor. This may be the case of so many "Venus"-like statues exhibiting grotesque deformities. In old Romanian art the humor is not a really major issue because the religious icons left little or no space for it in between the Virgin and the Infant Jesus, or among the saints and martyrs. Yet few smiles and sometimes blatant laughter are perceivable even in some of the most venerable fresco ensembles painted on the exterior walls of the churches. Some later, 18th century frescoes depict with predilection, especially in the county of Oltenia, humorous scenes taken from the then widely circulated "Physiologus", a collection of allegories employing animal satiric scenes to point to human vices. Moreover, grotesque and sarcastic imagery was developed on a theological and political basis, having as a target the Protestant fervent missionarism, threatening by that time the monolithic Orthodox constituency of the country. On the exterior walls of the tiny sick-monks church pertaining to the monastic complex at Horezu in Oltenia, the Protestants are assimilated unanimously to the sinners menaced by the apocalyptic monster Leviathan. Their particularity in comparison to the other tormented sinners consists in their being represented as engaged in grotesque and ridiculous deportment, in being pathetic and funny at the same time. One may argue that this is an accurate, early example of political caricature, if one takes into account that the Protestant religious expansion, as well as the previous, Catholic one, was a typically political move backed by the interests of the Hungarian crown. The frescoes at Horezu and elsewhere delineate a response from the part of the Romanian religious and political authorities, therefore it is about a commissioned criticism, an official pamphlet for the use of the local power in its struggle with menacing forces. Everything was commissioned by that time, even the laughter. The humor and the caricature in this case were deprived of the sharp social cutting edge, turning into duteous tools in the hands of potentates. There is no reason to suspect that the painters have chosen by themselves to make fun of the Protestants on personal reasons; rather they developed a humorous iconographic program echoing a political order and its need of self-preservation by the means of threatening –at least with the ridicule- those mesmerized by the Protestant propaganda. Later on, in the 19th century when secular art was supplanting, step by step, the religious art as the main system of visual imagery in Romania, the influences received from different sources, mainly of a Western Europe origin, were powerfully present in the art of such artists like Theodor Aman, who was still practicing a religious art, but from the point of view of a secular artist. Significantly, both in his case and in the case of other Romanian artists, the humorous illustration of the kind of the old German prints that laid the basis of printed sarcasm is not so influential. It seems that the Romanian artistic milieu, because of its old religious background and impermeability, actually missed the impetus given from the 16th century onwards by the German satiric prints, and took its own way until the modern times, when it reached the "international caricatural style' of the 19th century, which was rather heterogeneous. Except for the religious commissions, Aman made his work looking for his own vocabulary and anecdotes. When satiric, these ones were inspired, as both subject and technique are concerned, by his favorite French models, especially by the caricatures and humorous works of Honoré Daumier, but also by the demonic-satiric prints of Goya. Thus, the social criticist constituency of the caricature began to penetrate the humorous illustrations. A print like The Card Players of 1875 is both a fresco of the bourgeois society of the time, and a study of characters or a genre scene. In the soft darkening atmosphere of a wealthy salon, some foxy-looking ladies and badger-like gentlemen gather to play cards in such a concentrated and committed manner, as if they are busy with writing the Declaration of Independence or another significant document. The easy-going and nothing-doing morals of the time flutter all over the work, and the criticism is rather interior, permissive and sympathetic instead of harsh and exterior.This is the way good-mannered artists saw caricature. By that time, there appeared few prints displaying a very different humorous position. Unsurprisingly the way such woodcuts (like the anonymous How the aristocracy see the union, from 1861) posit the problem as both the form and content are concerned, is reminiscent of the old German standards of the Middle Ages. Sharp, aggressive traits put the story in a trenchant fashion: the way the aristocracy perceived the Union of Moldova and Wallachia in one state is by tightening together the rope around the neck of the peasant. This is one of the rare examples of popular prints accurately echoing the old patterns of uncompromising, grisly criticism of the medieval kind, and its being an anonymous work is very significant in the context of the 19th century, when the humorous art is taken further on, but with definitely different means and moods, by the known artists of the time. The kind of humorous works signed by artists that will stamp the whole framework of the caricature in Romania for at least a century appear by the end of the 19th century. They are, like in the case of Theodor Aman, of a certain modish French inspiration, and their criticism is rather courteous, relaxed and funny, marked by complicity instead of being combative, coarse and obstinate. Complementary, the artistic setting is different from the one put forth by the German medieval standards and their later avatars of the kind of the anonymous print of 1861. Instead of a powerfully grimacing, invented symbolic image the genre scenes are preferred, their aim being less the construction of a critical sign but rather the elaboration of a plausible background reflecting the real situation, how the interiors looked like and how people were dressed, how they were talking to each other by that time. Specific to this trend is the work of Constantin Jiquidi, like the diptych about elections, of 1895. A craftsman is greeted and seduced by the courtship of the candidate politician before the elections, but he is treated like a beggar after. There is no dramatism no tragic in it. This is the way things happen, nobody can change them, and the caricature is the last one to do that, because it points to no incisive criticism, but it simply uses the situation to raise laughter not revolutions. Reverberating the modernist innovations in constructing poster-like caricatures, and especially the works of Toulouse-Lautrec, Ari Murnu is preserving, in works like the Romanian Tax-collector, from 1905, the same social approach like the one of Aman and Jiquidi, that is a compliant, inconsequential criticism made to comfort the system. At their turn, great artists like Francisc Şirato, Iosif Iser, Nicolae Tonitza and Aurel Jiquidi will somehow make more acute their stance, but in the end they will preserve the same comfortable positioning, already traditional in the Romanian humorous art. It is true, the laughter they propelled kept that typical leftist grin, but their commitment was rather aesthetic and their final compliance to the rule is more important than the inconveniences they caused by criticizing, among many other subjects, the corrupt politicianism of the time, the monarchy, the capitalist exploitation and the engagement in the world war one. Their works seem designed rather to ameliorate the real conditions instead of transforming them. Caricature changed ultimately in an instrument of artistically accommodating a given reality, and the abundant production of Aurel Jiquidi, who transposed into drawing many types and characters inspired by the writings of I.L. Caragiale, remains perhaps the most luscious example of humorism in Romanian art. However, the worse period of the Romanian humorous illustration was still to come. After the World War Two, under the Soviet influence, Romanian artists tried to make caricature into a tool of changing consciences and morals. By that time caricature ceased to be significant even from an artistic point of view, turning into mere depicted propaganda frequently duplicating Soviet models. The imported laughter, the internationalist humor was thought to be one of the most efficient modeling agents of the communist "new man", a seemingly healthy consciousness that kept smiling when making the "daily revolution" of a blunt but incessant criticism and auto-criticism. However, precisely the inflationary criticism and the shallow laughter it comported contributed to the crumbling down of the humorous art into mere trifles finally negotiating a smiling living in some ghastly circumstances. So it does now too.

by Erwin Kessler