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A Light Touch: Exploring Humor in Drawing at the J. Paul Getty Museum
Thomas Rowlandson (British, 1757-1827), Box-Lobby Loungers, 1785. Pencil, pen and black and gray ink and watercolor. Framed: 71.1 X 91.4 cm. 84.GG.645. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

LOS ANGELES, CA.- From wicked caricatures to wry satirical observations of social and political injustice, drawings have incorporated humor for centuries. A Light Touch: Exploring Humor in Drawing, on view from September 23–December 7, 2008, at the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center, uses drawings from the Getty’s collection, along with several loans from the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, to explore humor in European drawing up to the year 1900. Included in the exhibition are works by Leonardo da Vinci, Urs Graf, Giambattista Tiepolo, Francisco de Goya, Thomas Rowlandson, and Pierre Bonnard.

“This exhibition shows how artists in previous centuries harnessed the power and immediacy of drawing to make their point,” says Julian Brooks, associate curator of drawings. “Just as social structures and art have changed through the centuries, so the use of humor within drawings has varied to fit the tastes of the period. While some of the humor is still funny today, other aspects may now seem curious or even distasteful.”

The exhibition is divided into categories of humor, beginning with caricature, one of the fundamental bases of drawn humor, in which the characteristic features of the human figure are exaggerated for amusement or criticism. Leonardo da Vinci was the first artist to popularize this art form. In Caricature of a Man with Bushy Hair, Leonardo emphasizes a man’s grotesque facial features, including his unkempt hair, jagged teeth, and oversized chin and nose, to comic effect.

Innuendo used in drawings exploits a double meaning, often with the help of a written caption. For example, Francisco de Goya’s He Can No Longer at the Age of 98 shows a frail old man hobbling along with theaid of two canes. As is often the case with Goya’s drawings, a Spanishinscription of the title gives the scene its meaning—suggesting the elderlyman’s mental and physical frailty, and hinting at his sexual impotence.

The Commedia dell’Arte was a widely popular form of improvisational theater that flourished across Europe in the 1600s and 1700s. The popularity of these comic performances inspired artists to depict the satirical characters and themes of these plays, which relied heavily on visual humor. Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s Punchinellos Approaching a Woman uses one of the most popular comic figures, the Punchinello, who talks with squeaks or strange sounds and was capable of trickery, violence, and gluttony. Tiepolo’s drawing shows a group of Punchinellos accosting an apparently compliant drunken woman.

Drawings based on social and political satire are often exaggerated representations designed to denounce the plentiful vices, stupidities, and evils of humanity. Jacques de Gheyn’s A Frog Sitting on Coins and Holding a Sphere: Allegory of Avarice is an allegorical representation of the sin of avarice. de Gheyn gives the naturalistic frog the human personality trait of greed. The frog bears a haughty expression, while he grasps uncouthly for the coins between his legs. In the other hand, the frog holds a sphere, symbolic of the grasp of greed on the world.

Adding a light touch to a more serious theme creates playfulness in drawings. Guy Billout’s Quadrature, the only drawing included in the exhibition from after 1900, playfully parodies Richard Meier’s famous grid design of the Getty Center by showing a young boy dragging a stick across the enamel-covered aluminum paneling, threatening to pull the whole structure apart. This drawing appeared in the March 1998 edition of Atlantic Monthly to commemorate the opening of the Getty Center.

Included in the exhibition are five drawings by Thomas Rowlandson, on loan from the Huntington Library. Rowlandson is regarded as one of the greatest practitioners of humorous drawing. His drawings were avidly collected, and some were made specifically to be reproduced and distributed in prints, both individually and in bound volumes. Rowlandson successfully combined many aspects of humorous drawing, using caricature for satirical purposes and lampooning well-known personalities as well as generic social types.

A Light Touch: Exploring Humor in Drawing is curated by Julian Brooks, associate curator in the Department of Drawings at the J. Paul Getty Museum, and Laura Patrizi, former graduate intern in the Department of Drawings.

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