Cutting Cartoons

As we’re off to New York City at the end of the month for a little break, I’ve been making of list of things I’d like to do and see.  Time will be limited, and I’m going for a nice balance of cultural pursuits and shopping.  Regarding the former, one event that is pretty high on my list is the new exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art:  Infinite JestCaricature and Satire from Leonardo to Levine (through March 4).  A genre that exists at the intersection of print and visual culture is right up my alley, but the prints that I’ve been able to access online look a little tame, mocking manners and fashions rather than actions and ideas. Here are two images from the exhibit:  the first is an English print based on an image of the Swiss artist Samuel Hieronymus Grimm of a gentleman farmer aghast at the appearance of his dandified son, while the second is a hand-colored lithograph by an anonymous French artist, mocking the fashions of 1830.

Apparently one section of the exhibit focuses on political satire, and (of course) includes James Gillray’s classic “Plum Pudding” cartoon from 1805, in which the very thin British Prime Minister William Pitt and the very small Napoleon carve up the world.  You can’t beat this for an image, and a teaching tool; it is immediately accessible.

I often incorporate cartoons into my teaching as they really drive home the point I’m trying to make.  Reformation cartoons, in particular, hammer (bludgeon) my points home.  I can understand why the curators of the exhibit began with Leonardo (everything begins with Leonardo!) but I would have worked Luther into the title as Reformation cartoons are really in a league of their own.  The early Protestants would stop at nothing to demonize the Pope, as you can see.

Not-so-subtle Reformation “cartoons”:  Martin Luther’s “Against the Papacy founded by the Devil”, 1545 (the Pope, with donkey ears, is sitting on a pyre in the midst of the mouth of Hell, surrounded by demons who are in the process of crowning him their king), a really neat cartoon card with a flap which folds down, exposing Pope Alexander VI as the Devil, and Philip Melanchthon’s famous/infamous “Pope-Ass”, first published in 1523.

What better way to reveal the zeal of the reformers than through these images?  More than a century later, the connection between the Pope and the Devil is maintained in this print from 1680, at probably the height of popular anti-Papism in Britain.

Moving into the more secular world of the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, cartoons branch out in several directions; they continued to mock those in power but also those in “fashion”.   At nearly the same time that Gillray was making fun of Pitt and Napoleon, he was taking on the elaborate turbans of society ladies in the delightful “Lady putting on her Cap” (Collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum).

Several decades later, a more serious subject is taken on by Robert Seymour, in “The Absentee” (1830).  An absentee landlord of an Irish estate lives the good life while his tenants starve, years before the great potato famine.

And finally, two cartoons that anticipate twentieth-century political caricatures:  the first, from 1871,  illustrates Chancellor of the newly-unified Germany Otto von Bismarck on top of the world.  It’s by the French illustrator Jean Renard, and clearly presents a French perspective:  not only is Bismarck stepping on France, he’s only wearing his underwear.  Renard manages to make the imposing Bismarck look both imperialistic and ridiculous at the same time.  The second is a classic images that always helps me to explain late-nineteenth imperialism to my students:  “China–the Cake of Kings…and Emperors” from 1898.  The cake (it actually always looked more like a pizza to me) that is China is being carved up the world’s powers (Queen Victoria/Great Britain, Kaiser Wilhelm/Germany, Tsar Nicholas/Russia, Marianne/France, a Japanese warlord) while its personage looks on helplessly.  Things have definitely changed over the last century!


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