Drawing Basics: Exploring Humor in Drawing

American Artist exhibitionLeonardo Da Vinci drawing, Caricature of a Man With Bushy HairAn exhibition at The J. Paul Getty Museum, in Los Angeles, explores the
way various master draftsmen used drawing to comment on society, often revealing
their inner thoughts in the process.

Leonardo Da Vinci drawing, Caricature of a Man With Bushy Hair
Caricature of a Man With Bushy Hair
by Leonardo da Vinci, ca. 1495, pen and brown ink drawing on paper, 2 x 2. All artwork this exhibition collection the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California.

As a result of its immediacy, drawing has been used for centuries to lampoon human character, ridicule physical characteristics, and satirize behavior. In "A Light Touch: Exploring Humor in Drawing," the J. Paul Getty Museum, in Los Angeles, culls several works from its collection to demonstrate the ways in which artists offered wry social commentary and, in doing so, demonstrated their own humanity. The exhibition, which includes works by Leonardo da Vinci, Urs Graf, Francisco de Goya, Thomas Rowlandson, and Pierre Bonnard, will explore several brands of humor, from wicked caricatures to wry observations of social injustice.

"I have always been fascinated by caricature and other aspects of humor in drawing," says Dr. Julian Brooks, the associate curator of drawings at the Getty and the curator of this exhibition. "We're always looking for new ways to display our collection, and by employing the theme of humor, we were able to exhibit drawings from a wide range of time periods while showing interesting connections between seemingly disparate artists." Brooks began sorting through the collection over a year ago, and found that images fell into roughly five categories: caricature, innuendo, playfulness, comic performance (specifically commedia dell'arte), and social and political satire. The first and last categories were the largest, but he notes that several drawings easily contained elements of two or three. "Thomas Rowlandson's Box-Lobby Loungers, for example, contains elements of both caricature and satire," Brooks explains. "It's satirical of the English gentry. But it also has several caricatures within it, such as the leering old man in the foreground."

Many viewers may be surprised by the artists on display, especially those considered Old Masters. However, it is placing the artists in the context of humor that makes them all the more accessible to viewers. "People think of Leonardo and think of his religious paintings–they certainly don't think of humorous drawings," says the curator. "But he was a master of observation when it came to drawing people, and he used his skills to create interesting caricature; he can be credited with inventing the genre. Leonardo was fascinated by human physiognomy, and he believed it expressed the character of the person. He consistently drew, and his notebooks were filled with small sketches and notes on people's features." Take, for instance, Caricature of a Man With Bushy Hair, which shows a laughing man with pointed teeth and a large nose. This small sketch, a little over 2" x 2", is the definition of caricature. "Caricature comes from the Italian verb caricare, which means 'to charge'-a caricature is a charged portrait," Brooks explains. "This drawing subverts the classical profile portrait, which was used to exemplify nobility and often highlighted the nose and the chin. In this drawing Leonardo exaggerated those features; we see a close observation of human nature and then a distortion of it, all in a tiny drawing."

Daumier A Criminal Case watercolor and gouache drawing
A Criminal Case
by Honoré Daumier, ca. 1865, drawing watercolor and gouache with pen, brown ink, and black chalk on paper, 15? x 12 13/16.

The Getty—whose drawing collection consists of work created before 1900—covers a long time period (about 400 years) in this exhibition, demonstrating the ways in which humorous drawings changed in response to culture. "In earlier drawings, the humor tended to be more personal to the artist," Brooks notes. "Beginning in the late 16th century, the idea that drawings can be subversive and make a political point comes into play." In all instances, the curator notes that these drawings allowed the artists a means of escape from their daily routines and their commissioned work. "The Old Masters were human," stresses Brooks. "In this exhibition, you can see great artists having fun. One Michelangelo sketch, Sheet of Studies [not shown], is the reverse side of a religious drawing, and shows exaggerated sketches of a bird's head, as well as a quickly drawn lewd scene of putti. It can be surprising to see that an artist such as Michelangelo did doodles just as we do today." For some artists, such as Goya, humorous drawings provided a means of addressing large social issues. "In Contemptuous of the Insults, he created what is essentially a self-portrait, in which he is a debonair man contemptuous of these tiny caricatures of Napoleonic soldiers," the curator explains. "In this piece he is working through his own fear of the French occupation of Spain."

Most of the drawings on view were done in pen-and-ink, a fact that the curator believes efficiently conveys much of their humor. "Leonardo's piece is done in this medium, which allows for quick detail on a small scale," he says. "The nature of a lot of humor is wicked observation, capturing a quick impression of a person, an environment, or an event. The essence of line is crucial to caricature." Other pieces, such as Daumier's A Criminal Case and Rowlandson's Box-Lobby Loungers are significantly larger, and in the case of the latter, was designed to be a print, which is why it is more finished. "He also used watercolor in addition to pen-and-ink, and the resulting prints were hand-colored to mimic the drawing," Brooks explains.

Rowlandson Box-Lobby Loungers drawing
Box-Lobby Loungers
by Thomas Rowlandson, 1785, drawing of graphite, pen, black and gray ink, and watercolor on paper, 13¾ x 22?.

The curator also notes that these drawings not only show another side of the artists but also appealed to many art collectors, primarily because of their satirical elements. "Tiepolo's drawings were collected in Venice as works of art in and of themselves because they treated the humorous side of life, and they were sought by Venetians and British and German grand-tourists alike," he says. "Also, prints made from drawings weren't very expensive, so they were collected by people who we might not think of as art collectors today. Rowlandson's prints were bought by a wide cross-section of society, yet they also appealed to British gentry, who found them funny-even though they were often the butt of the joke." All the works on view, whether quick sketches or highly finished work prepared for reproduction, were significant achievements. "In the 16th and 17th century, images were very valuable," Brooks notes. "Nowadays we're surrounded by billboards, advertisements, television-images are everywhere. But when Leonardo and Tiepolo and others were creating, the only images that existed were the works themselves." Although humor is the pervading theme of "A Light Touch," the images on view do more than entertain. They offer a unique insight into the minds of great artists, going beyond their famous work and showing how they harnessed the power of drawing and recorded the world around them at their leisure.

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