Unmistakable

Michael Rogin

  • Celebrity Caricature in America by Wendy Wick Reaves
    Yale, 320 pp, £29.95, April 1998, ISBN 0 300 07463 8

The stocking cap, solid black on top and red-ribbed across the tube, an eye popping out at the face end. Red outline for ear, forked red line for mouth, blue-grey near-rectangle vertically placed for shoulder. These lines and shapes precipitate a face, itself un-outlined, from out of white space, the unmistakable head of Harpo Marx. Turn a few more pages of Wendy Wick Reaves’s spectacular book Celebrity Caricature in America, the catalogue for an exhibition at the Smithsonian in Washington DC until 23 August, and you will also learn unmistakably to recognise the artist, Miguel Covarrubias. There’s Covarrubias again, putting Jean Harlow on the couch below an elongated, brooding Freud; she appears to be dreaming of cacti, shown outside the window lighting up the night sky. Covarrubias is illustrating one of the ‘Impossible Interviews’ that ran in the Vanity Fair of the Thirties. There he is yet again, crowding together in aggressively two-dimensional space, separated only by the prison bars between them, a fat, jowly, smiling, check-suited Al Capone and a white-haired/eyebrowed/moustachioed, black-coated Supreme Court Chief Justice, Charles Evans Hughes. There’s Harpo again, this time with cotton-wool locks, alongside his brothers – Groucho’s moustache, glasses, cigar, wing-tipped head of hair, Chico’s sly open mouth and steel-wool hair identifying the ersatz Italian Jew. The three faces jump out at you from the sheet music for A Night at the Opera in Al Hirschfeld’s 1935 collage. There’s Al Freuh’s jaunty economical outline of, unmistakably, the showman George M. Cohan spinning his cane, Paolo Garretto’s Babe Ruth as home run baseball floating in the air, unmistakably baseball and unmistakably Ruth. And Henry Major’s Ernst Lubitsch, Will Cotton’s Theodore Dreiser, Hirschfeld’s Bojangles Robinson, and more and more, all well-known and all made new.

That shock of the familiar, the celebrity instantly recognisable by the trademark logo that the artist reinvents distinctively as his or her own, defines the genre that Reaves has discovered and assembled, the celebrity caricature that flourished in Manhattan in the first third of the 20th century. Celebrity caricature took off from and fostered a shared world of famous people affectionately known by their public personas. That club was not one that Groucho Marx refused to join. On the contrary, it supplied the ground for his retort, after Jack Warner threatened a copyright infringement action for A Night in Casablanca (Warner Bros had produced the original Casablanca), that Groucho, Chico and Harpo would countersue Jack, Al and Harry for stealing ‘Brothers’.

Reaves writes about celebrity caricature with unfailing authority, wit and perceptiveness. Except once. Not a picture or word in this large and lavishly illustrated volume supports her introductory claim that these images offer a ‘refreshing corrective to our ongoing obsession with fame’. ‘Corrective to’ is exactly the wrong phrase; ‘validation of’ would be more like it. Caricature was originally an instrument of disapproval, often from a populist political perspective. It emancipated itself from that discrediting function, Reaves herself argues, by celebrating the emergence of celebrity culture. Familiars of the newly familiar faces, the portraits in this volume enhance their subjects rather than expose them. The pictures bind audiences ever more closely to the famous people they seem to dwell among.

Counteracting urban and immigrant alienation, Reaves writes, celebrity caricature created an ‘almost familial connection to prominent public figures’. Excited by modernity, speed and dissonant juxtaposition, celebrity caricature made the immigrant cosmopolitan metropolis feel like an up-to-date small town. Although all of the dozen artists featured in this volume worked in Manhattan, more than half were born outside the United States and only the two women, Peggy Bacon and Aline Freuhauf, grew up (so far as I can tell) in New York City. Nurtured in the prewar milieu of Alfred Stieglitz’s Camera Work and Gallery 291, celebrity caricature announced its popular triumph in Ralph Barton’s Chauve-Souris Curtain (1922) that dropped down at the intermission of a popular Russian musical revue to reveal the faces of 139 recognisable first-nighters staring back at an audience that contained many of them.

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