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Art's 'Sense Of Humor' Chronicled At The National Gallery Of Art


Here is a challenge for you. Name one great painting that makes you laugh. If none comes to mind now or ever, that's probably because...

JUDITH BRODIE: There's a high seriousness, I would say, to paintings...

MONTAGNE: A formality, says curator Judith Brodie.

BRODIE: ...That doesn't apply so much to prints and drawings, which happen more quickly. They tend to be ephemeral.

MONTAGNE: The kind you might experience at a new exhibition of prints and drawings titled "Sense Of Humor" at the National Gallery of Art. There's caricature, satire and the purely comedic, a kind of immediate art that took off in the Renaissance. At the very beginning of the show, we see a study in pen and ink believed to be from the studio of Leonardo da Vinci of two grotesque faces. And at this moment, when artists became interested in the range of human expression, humor entered the picture.

A couple of hundred years after da Vinci, printmaking took off, allowing the masses to get in on the joke. Curator Stacey Sell walks us through the works of that era where British artists, in particular, deployed humor to provoke a mask and critique the powerful.

STACEY SELL: The 1700s became the golden age of political satire because London was ripe for it. Artists were starting to use comic art to address social ills and try to heal them. They had an active print market already in place, relative freedom of speech. And they had a two-party system, which as we all know is a recipe for hilarity when you have two feuding political parties.

MONTAGNE: And remember the madness of King George when the colonies were slipping away? Artist James Gillray depicted the kings three top ministers as the three witches in "Macbeth," divining their own downfall should the king never recover. Gillray was hugely popular, fearless. His prints reached a broad, public skewering, his targets with great wit and high art - like his portrayal of a controversial prime minister swallowing gold coins and, onto the furious citizenry, excoriating them as paper money.

SELL: Political satirists were kind of the late-night comics of their time. And somebody like Gillray - when it was announced that he was putting out a print on a contemporary event or a scandal - people would line up in front of publishers and wait for it to appear in the windows. And there's this great letter from this young up-and-coming politician who's kind of humble bragging saying, ooh, I just heard Gillray's about to do a caricature of me. I hope it's not too terrible. And you can tell he's taking great pleasure in the fact that he's now risen high enough that Gillray would interest himself with him. And then there's an equally funny letter a few weeks later where he's very disappointed to know that the Gillray thing fizzled out.

MONTAGNE: By the 1800s, artists elsewhere in France and Spain were employing prints to lampoon high society. The great Spanish artist, Goya, not known for getting laughs, did use humor in one simple etching featuring a donkey.

SELL: A depiction of - really, probably the best way to put it is a pompous ass. It's an ass who's overly proud of his own heritage. And here's this donkey all dressed up looking at this family tree, and everybody in the family tree is an ass. And then there's the coat of arms right down there. And that's got an ass in it, too. He's very proud of it. And he's kind of looking out at us as though, you know - see how important I am? It might have been just aimed at people who were excessively proud of their own family backgrounds. But it could also have been aimed at a particular person, the Queen's lover and a high government official who was known to be kind of a genealogy fiend and excessively proud of his own family background.

MONTAGNE: In France, the name to know was Daumier. Stacey Sell points out one of the highlights of this show. The simple composition of echoing curves and the rich range of lights and darks contribute to make this one of the most memorable political satires of all time. It's depiction of the Chamber of Deputies, which was sort of the legislative branch of the French government. The politicians are all goofing off in different ways. And you get kind of lost in looking at them tell jokes to each other, blow their noses. Some of them are dozing off. It plays into the way that we still see politicians sometimes now. And the best visual joke of this whole thing is the way that the curves of the seating echoes the curves of their overfed bellies. Their punches are all sort of sticking out. And the message we're supposed to be getting is that they were getting fat off of the very people they were supposed to be protecting.

MONTAGNE: Not far away is a gorgeous print of the French king himself looking like a pear in a clown suit. Soon Daumier would find himself in prison briefly. Also soon, political prints taking on the king and parliament were banned. We see all these themes at play when we reach the 20th century, and the targets expand to include racism and sexism. Judith Brodie, who curated the modern work, points to a 1988 print by the activist artists the Guerrilla Girls, still up to the minute after 30 years.

BRODIE: One of the ways that they got their point across very effectively was with humor and - because if you can get people to see the humor in the situation, they may take the message more to heart.

MONTAGNE: The poster is a riff on popular top 10 lists here directed at the male-dominated art establishment.

BRODIE: So very tongue-in-cheek - the advantages of being a woman artist - working without the pressure of success, not having to be in shows with men, being reassured that whatever kind of art you make it will be labelled feminine, seeing your ideas live on in the work of others, not having to undergo the embarrassment of being called a genius and getting your picture...

MONTAGNE: The Guerrilla Girls, among the artists whose drawings and prints are on display in the exhibition, "Sense Of Humor" opening tomorrow at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF WALKING AIDA'S "EXPLODING PALM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.