by John Holbo on June 7, 2014

I’ve been writing a survey article on “Caricature” for a forthcoming anthology on comics. I did that thing where you do too much research? And actually you don’t have that many words to play with? So sad.

Baudelaire is quite a clever fellow, of course, but it turns out the most sophisticated definition of ‘caricature’ comes from Walt Disney: “The true interpretation of caricature is the exaggeration of an illusion of the actual; or the sensation of the actual put into action.” That’s basically Ernst Gombrich’s philosophy of caricature – which is the correct one! – condensed. And Disney said it first.

I found part the quote in Walt Stanchfield, Drawn to Life [amazon], and was rather proud of my discovery. But it turns out it comes from a 1935 memo to Don Graham, which someone has posted online in its entirety. So I’m later to the party than I thought. Rats.

One thing that makes the topic slippery is that you can get bogged down in arguments over firsts. It’s rather traditional to start with Leonardo’s grotesque heads. But why not not start with a Paleolithic ‘venus’ figurine? Basically, you start using ‘caricature’ as a synonym for style, so all art is caricature. Probably you don’t want to go there – or just briefly.

But here’s a possible ‘who’s first?’ game we can play. What is the earliest case concerning which the means survive for us to enjoy, today, the classic caricature viewer experience? The amused moment of personal recognition – simultaneous seeing of likeness in not-likeness? I submit one should start with this portrait of Rudolf II, then look at Arcimboldo’s Vertumnus (1590). You can see it in the wheat eyebrows and radish eyebags. “Vaster than emperors, and more slow,” you might say.

Obviously it’s only our historical bad luck if we can’t find anything earlier. Can you push it back further?

Bonus points for earnestly wringing your hands about whether, by hinting that we can see what Rudolf ‘really’ looked like in the Heintz painting, I am implicated in a pernicious ideology of naive realism. Bless you, in advance, for your concern!