Sunday, December 10, 2023

What’s So Funny?

There are so many ways to look at art and I started to think about the artists who are intentionally poking fun at the world or inadvertently creating an image I find funny. Humor is always in the mind of the beholder. That is why you can sit in a comedy club doubled over with laughter while the person sitting next to you is trying to figure out what you think is so funny.

One of the Old Masters who seems to be enjoying himself is Pieter Breughel the Elder (1526/30-1569). In the Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin you will find a painting called “Netherlandish Proverbs” of 1559. All kinds of mayhem are going on: notice the guy hitting his head against a wall on the left and that one fellow who seems to be digging a grave for the man crawling away at the bottom center. There are many other vignettes that viewers of the period would have recognized as illustrating proverbs that make fun of human behavior.


I particularly enjoy this painting by Pere Borrell del Caso (1835-1910), “Escaping Criticism’ (1874), in a private collection (Bank of Spain, Madrid). Aside from the ironic title, seeing the figure jump out of the frame as if to join the viewer adds to the humor.


This painting by Domenichino, “St. Cecilia with an Angel Holding a Musical Score,” ca. 1617 has a couple of points of humor to my eyes. Not only is the angel holding the score above his head trying in vain to get St. Cecilia’s attention, but she is so distracted it looks like she is going to poke him in the tummy with her bow.


In the Gazette de l’ Hotel Drouot an auction was announced for December 18-20th that includes a painting by Giampietrino (circa 1500-1550) titled “Ecce Homo” or Behold the Man. The image of Christ with hands bound and a crown of thorns as Pontius Pilate presented him to the hostile crowd was a traditional subject for private devotion. But instead of an inspiring picture of suffering and resignation, what about this Christ’s countenance? To me he seems to be glancing toward one of his tormentors as if to say “This is so tiresome. Let’s get on with it”.


I thought I would take a look at our own collection. As a child I loved works of Honoré-Victorin Daumier (1808-1879). The painter, sculptor and graphic artist often did cartoons for the newspaper. As a birthday present my parents went to Walter Schatzki’s on 57th Street in New York that specialized in the graphic arts and bought me this original newspaper clipping. The title is “The Auction House” and the story in the caption loosely translated says, “My wife told me to bring her my portrait painted in Paris…..But that doesn’t look like you….I know that but I will have the face touched up and that will cost me less than to have it done from scratch!”


To finish up in the 20th century we have a well-known image from the early 1950’s, that seems appropriate for the season, Norman Rockwell’s “The Jolly Postman”. All the children want their presents before the postman has reached their house. Guess they caught on that Santa is not going to come down the chimney and Amazon didn’t exist yet!


Tip for parents: If you take children, kicking and screaming, to a museum, tell them to look at the paintings and see what they might find funny or let them make up what the stories might be. They will enjoy the experience far better!

To illustrate the point from a book called “Parenting Advice to Ignore in Art and Life” by Nicole Tersigni this example from many old masters with comments. This Ercole de’ Roberti (1451-1496) in the National Gallery, Washington D.C.