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.

As the Jazz Age succeeded Victorian New York, the café society that had once entertained the old guard now not only came to dinner but itself became the new social élite. Idols of production like Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford appear rarely here, and the old family New Yorkers found early in the century give way by the Twenties to idols of consumption from show business and journalism. Taking root in the informal Algonquin club of writers, in Vanity Fair and in the new (in 1925) New Yorker, and radiating out to the mass press, celebrity caricature brought together high and low culture, design and entertainment, modern art and indigenous masks.

Borrowing Warren Susman’s distinction, Reaves suggests that celebrity caricaturists were interested not in the private character of their subjects, which had been the 19th-century concern, but in their visible, public personalities. The Mexican-born Marius De Zayas paid homage with his Alfred Stieglitz (1912-13) to a Pacific Island ‘trap for catching souls’ that reminded him of the photographer. But far from opening a window on Stieglitz’s soul, De Zayas’s geometrised figure is no less abstract than the Polynesian stick and circles or the Cubist portraits that inspired it. Although the slightly brooding faces De Zayas drew in his ‘concrete’ style are both more soulful and more instantly recognisable than what he called his ‘abstract caricature’, individuated inner depth was no more his concern than that of William Auerback-Levy (born in Brest-Litovsk), whose slightly turned away ‘timeless, impersonal’ heads, as Reaves observes, use media-generated emblems of fame (Heywood Broun’s unkempt hair, Franklin P. Adams’s cigar, H.L. Mencken’s sneer) to bar access to their bearers’ interiors. Caricaturists were interested in public faces, not secret lives; their masks varied, personality by personality, unlike the Polynesian, African and Aztec originals, because these artists were the icon-makers for their Manhattan tribe.

Reaves’s court artists display, to change one word in Erving Goffman’s classic title, the presentation of self in celebrity life. When they pretend to uncover the authentic private person hidden beneath the public performance, they are just engaging in another form of play. Some Emily Post fans were appalled at Covarrubias’s depiction of the mistress of etiquette with her hair in rollers, her bare feet propped on the kitchen table and the Police Gazette in one hand (1933), but Post thanked Vanity Fair (putting the valued word in quotes) for the ‘delicious “publicity”’.

George III didn’t find being made a public spectacle so delicious, and it is remarkable that he sent William Holland to Newgate for issuing the pamphlets of Tom Paine, but not for publishing Richard Newton’s scandalous political caricatures. Newton, a brilliant cartoonist who died at the age of 21, is the subject of an exhibition and catalogue from the Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester. When Crowninshield, the editor of Vanity Fair, praised the absence of ‘grossièreté’ in Covarrubias, he was distinguishing that artist from the tradition to which Newton belonged. In A Bugaboo, for example, Newton’s print of 1792 protesting against plans to suppress the radical opposition, an elegant William Pitt rides the shoulders of the bloated-looking, nonsense-spouting King. John Bull, objecting to war with Revolutionary France in the 1798 ‘TREASON!!!’, farts into the unmistakably unhappy face of His Royal Highness.

Like other caricaturists in the orbit of the French Revolution, Newton made scatology a subversive weapon. Sometimes Newton’s pleasure seems merely ‘schoolboyish’ – David Alexander’s word – because what Crowninshield would later call the ‘grossness and somewhat fat overstatement’ overwhelm any political point. Not so, however, when Newton shows Napoleon Establishing French Quarters in Italy by having the Pope kiss the Emperor’s large, naked arse as Pitt cries, ‘My turn.’ The cartoonist is alluding to the well-known ‘Road to Preferment’; a friend of mine once posted another version outside the university faculty bathroom. But sometimes the cartoonist’s intent is not so clear: did Newton illustrate the flogging of naked black bodies for abolitionists, Alexander asks, or for flagellation print collectors?

Whatever one thinks of the 18th-century linkage of ‘political radicalism’ and ‘shameless vulgarity’, as Alexander puts it, Newton was capable of more originally arresting visual effects. A Brueghelesque late, untitled print, the effect of which is intensified by the limpid colours, shows a mob of men wrestling on the ground; the word ‘Mass’ is visible in the fallen book open on the ground. In Enjoying an Old Friend, a cloven-hoofed, amused devil shares a smoke with a look-alike parson. In the stunning technicolor Billy’s Plaything, the dancing-master Pitt whips the decapitated, precariously-perched, red-bonneted, tearful face of his political adversary Charles James Fox.

The allegorical figures of traditional political and moral satire, like the productions of pornography, are not given distinctive individuating marks. So Newton’s Napoleon looks less like the Bonaparte we now all know than does Garretto’s squared-off, diminutive New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia playing the role. The personalised features Newton does assign to his targets make them guilty by association. As we come to recognise Newton’s Pitt and George III – or, more famously, Louis Philippe’s head in Daumier’s pear – familiarity breeds contempt.

The New York caricaturists celebrate masks; Newton uses masks to expose. Celebrity caricaturists play with surfaces; Newton exposes what they hide. Whereas the bodies in celebrity caricature remain closed, Newton opens up and physicalises his – as when Pitt shovels depreciated currency into an open-mouthed, big-bellied John Bull. Celebrity caricaturists share the aim of political cartoonists like Newton: to diminish the awe we feel in the presence of authority. Like Reaves’s artists, Newton exaggerates and mocks the physical appearance of his subjects, but while the New Yorkers create a vicarious community of mutual enjoyment, the London radical contests any community between the famous and what the 18th century called the ‘inglorious’.

Appropriately, then, it was politics that unsettled celebrity caricature before new modes in which fame could be visually circulated finally all but did the form in. Although Theodore Roosevelt’s teeth are prominently displayed in Reaves’s volume, politicians as a whole receive only bit parts. The culture wars that tore apart the United States in the Twenties – immigration restriction, prohibition, Sacco and Vanzetti, the Ku Klux Klan, the Tennessee trial of John Scopes for teaching evolution in schools – appear only in Henry Major’s neutrally sympathetic (and therefore jarring) portraits of the three major protagonists at the Scopes trial: Scopes, Clarence Darrow who defended him and William Jennings Bryan who tried to have him sent to jail. Garretto’s dignified, floating Calvin Coolidge head (1928) elevates the colourless President, and although the anorexic, pimpled, almost mouthless ‘silent Cal’ in Covarrubias’s 1925 caricature is perhaps the creepiest image in this book, that same artist’s shrivelled Coolidge (1932), seated at one end of an ‘Impossible Interview’ couch as far as possible from Greta Garbo’s spidery, sexy legs, is endearingly rendered. Cheerily inadequate to its subject, however, is Covarrubias’s placement that same year of angelic Huey Long in Ku Klux Klan nightshirt next to a green-uniformed spaceman Mussolini. Worse yet, Garretto’s Strong Men of the Old World in Vanity Fair a month earlier neutrally brings together Stalin, Mussolini, Gandhi, Josef Pilsudski, Aristide Briand and an art deco ‘Handsome Adolf’ Hitler. No photograph could make the newly-appointed Nazi prime minister look so streamlined, so dignified, so good-looking.

Stalin and Hitler, depression and war, do not show off celebrity caricature to advantage. I had always held Popular Front culture to account for the affectionate portraits of Stalin in the Thirties and Forties, but the two examples in this book predate the Popular Front and – though Will Cotton’s red steel-girdered hat is a visually brilliant touch – suggest that celebrity caricature must share the blame. The Italian-born Garretto, identified by Vanity Fair as a ‘Fascist artist’, admired Mussolini and with the outbreak of World War Two would suffer – by loss of work, exile and imprisonment – for political allegiances he no longer held. But the problem for celebrity caricature lay less in its political commitments than in their unforgivable absence. For in the Thirties, fame lost its perceived political neutrality. Will Cotton’s Vanity Fair frontispieces of Senator William Borah and Secretary of State Henry Stimson beatify their sinister subjects, a letter-writer to the magazine complained. Although the Communist William Gropper’s cartoon of Hirohito pulling the Nobel Peace Prize on a gun wagon offended the Japanese Government, it actually sacrifices the Newton-like polemical negativity that was Gropper’s trademark to Vanity Fair’s upbeat look.

But celebrity caricature in the Thirties was losing its common ground. The form reached its apotheosis in the first half of the decade, to be sure, with Cotton’s sweetly intense Vanity Fair colour images and Covarrubias’s ‘Impossible Interviews’. Even after Condé Nast folded the magazine into Vogue in 1936, the great Al Hirschfeld, who died only after Celebrity Caricature went to press, kept caricature alive at the New Yorker. It is appropriate nonetheless that the unforgettably jauntily-tilted head, jutting jaw and impossibly long cigarette holder that (all exterior and no interior) defined FDR is nowhere to be found in Celebrity Caricature, since that logo represents not just the culmination of the genre but its end.

Shying away from politics and psychology, celebrity caricature’s brilliant inventions remain buoyantly on the surface of the personality. But the weightiest artists in Reaves’s show gained substance from their roots in this forbidden territory. The Mexican-born Covarrubias came out of the tradition of populist political caricature and revolutionary mural painting. At a café decorated with José Clemente Orozco’s caricatures (and owned by the artist’s brother), the teenager drew such prominent figures as Orozco, Diego Rivera and Rufino Tamayo. Covarrubias left the satirical bite and political content of the older painters behind at the Mexican border, but they mark his portraits all the same – both in his flattened, formalised power and in his absurdist making strange of the noteworthy. Caricature, moreover, was only a stage in this polymath’s distinguished career. Drawn to the social and symbolic worlds of folk and ethnic art, Covarrubias became an anthropologist. He and his wife, the dancer Rosa Rolanda, spent a year in Bali, illustrating their highly-regarded book with his paintings and her photographs. By the mid-Thirties the couple were living primarily in Mexico. There Covarrubias gave up caricature to become an authority on ancient Mexican art and archaeology.

By contrast, the American-born Ralph Barton wrested caricature not from revolutionary politics and indigenous art but from manic depression. Barton’s ‘lines wiggle and waver with such agitation that they move before your eyes,’ Reaves observes – in the dizzyingly checked suit of William Gillette starring in a revival of Sherlock Holmes; in Ed Wynn’s wiggling forehead, eyebrows, mouth, chins, neck, collar and tie; in Billie Burke’s impossibly elongated, bent-back figure, attired with a shawl and dress that pull one way and a hat that pulls the other. Moved to his own face in a 1922 self-portrait at the height of his fame, the curves settle into pensive melancholy. Barton’s tumultuous whirling changes of women and residences, Reaves suggests, testified to the failure of art to detach him from the maelstroms of public fame and private despair. Noël Coward and Gertrude Lawrence make an unsettling odd couple in a February 1931 New Yorker, their writhing bodies entangled and wrestling on the ground. As his large hand circles her thin neck, it fixes the actress’s long fingers and fingernails in rigor mortis. Three months later Barton shot himself in the head.

Celebrity caricature survived Barton’s suicide and Covarrubias’s departure. What it could not overcome, in addition to politics, were cartoon animation and television on the one hand, and the prurient interest in private life on the other. Although the cartoon images of the late Thirties borrow from celebrity caricature, they ultimately vulgarised, simplified and comic-stripped it. The visual ubiquity of television has settled comfortably (or in the case of confessional talk shows, uncomfortably) into an ersatz informal intimacy at odds with the inventiveness of caricature. Imagine living in the worst of both worlds: Richard Newton’s pornography of public figures without his radical political bite, the caricaturists’ celebration of the rich and famous without their high style.