Celebrity caricature in America has become a popular twentieth-century permutation of the longstanding art of caricature—the distortion of the face or figure for satiric purposes—which claims an extensive tradition in Western art. For centuries, comically exaggerated portrayals have served the purpose of ridicule and protest, probing beneath outward appearances to expose hidden, disreputable character traits. In the early twentieth century, however, American caricaturists based in New York City deployed a fresh approach, inventing a new form of popular portraiture. They chose for their subjects the colorful rather than the corrupt personalities of the day, reflecting the preoccupation with mass media-generated fame. During the height of its vogue between the two World Wars, celebrity caricature permeated the press, leaving the confines of the editorial cartoon to flourish on the newspaper's entertainment pages, at the head of a syndicated column, on a magazine cover, or color frontispiece. Distorted faces appeared on café walls, silk dresses, and cigarette cases; Ralph Barton's caricature theater curtain depicting a first-night audience caused a sensation in 1922. Caricaturists did not attempt to editorialize or criticize in such images. "It is not the caricaturist's business to be penetrating," Barton insisted, "it is his job to put down the figure a man cuts before his fellows in his attempt to conceal the writhings of his soul." These artists highlighted the public persona rather than probing beneath it, reconstructing its exaggerated components with a heightened sense of style and wit. Mocking the celebrity system, caricature provided a counterbalance to unrestrained publicity.
American caricaturists sought a modern look, derived from European art, to express a contemporary urbanity. They departed from comic conventions, selectively borrowing from the radical art movements of the day. Like advertisers, they began to simplify, elongate, geometricize, and fragment their figural forms. Eventually, their stylish mockery would be fueled by the abstractions, collage techniques, color dissonances, and unexpected conflations of Cubism, Fauvism, and Surrealism. Humor and a recognizable face made modernist stylization palatable. Artist and critic Carlo de Fornaro, arriving in New York around 1898, was the first to advocate a Parisian style of caricature that was closely related to French poster art. His india ink newspaper caricatures combined an art nouveau elongation of the figure with a bold simplification of form. Caricaturist Al Frueh abbreviated images of theatrical figures into quintessential summaries of their characteristics. Critics marveled at Frueh's ability to evoke a personality with a minimum of lines, and Alfred Stieglitz, the acknowledged ringleader of the New York avant-garde before World War I, exhibited his drawings in 1912.
Mexican-born artist Marius de Zayas's approach to caricature especially intrigued Stieglitz, who mounted three exhibitions of his work. De Zayas drew dark, atmospheric charcoal portraits suggestive of pictorialist photographs and enigmatic symbolist drawings. Influenced by Picasso, he even experimented with "abstract caricature," a radical departure from visual realism. Many critics admired the aesthetic sophistication of this updated art form. "Between modern caricature and modern 'straight' portraiture," the New YorkWorld's Henry Tyrrell wrote, "there is only a thin and vague line of demarcation."
Ties to the avant-garde raised the prestige of caricature and encouraged its use in such "smart" magazines of the post war era as Life, Judge, Vanity Fair, and the New Yorker. Caricature reflected a new strain of light, irreverent parody that pervaded the Broadway stage, the vaudeville circuit, Tin Pan Alley, magazine verses, newspaper columns, and the writings of the Algonquin Round Table wits. In the early 1920s, Vanity Fair, a leading proponent of this art, recruited the young Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias to draw portraits of café society luminaries. His powerful ink line lent an iconic, monumental quality to his figures. "They are bald and crude and devoid of nonsense," Ralph Barton wrote, "like a mountain or a baby." Advances in color printing gave caricature an additional appeal in the 1930s. Will Cotton provided portraits in bright pastels, employing color as a comic weapon. Artist Paolo Garretto used collage, airbrushed gouache, and a crisp Art Deco stylization to create vivid visual effects.
The best artists in the increasingly crowded field honed their clever deformations with a distinctive style. William Auerbach-Levy eliminated details and distilled shapes into logo-like faces that were printed on stationery and book jackets. Covarrubias, working in watercolor, lampooned the leveling nature of celebrity. Visual contrasts of such opposite personalities as Martha Graham and fan dancer Sally Rand, in his famous "Impossible Interviews" series, were undermined by the commonality of fame. Few could evoke the dynamic movement of performance as well as Al Hirschfeld, whose swooping curves and sharp angles captured in mid-step the familiar look of a dancer or actor.
Caricature exploited the appetite for modern celebrity whetted by the developing mass media. The nature of fame had changed, and notability was no longer tied to traditional areas of accomplishment. As Vanity Fair explained, caricature subjects were selected "because of their great interest as personalities." Information about the famous became increasingly standardized: publicity photographs, syndicated stories, records, films, and news clips consolidated the celebrity image. Caricature consistently reflected the narrow, shallow exaggerations that the mass media dispensed. The famous learned to appreciate the compliment. H.L. Mencken wrote to one artist that he liked his caricature: "It is grotesque and yet it does justice to my underlying beauty." Emily Post, unflatteringly portrayed in a magazine, thanked the editor for the "delicious publicity."
The celebrity caricature fad peaked in the 1920s and 1930s. The trend even inspired star-studded animated cartoons, and collectible dolls, masks, and puppets of film idols. By mid-century, it was on the wane. The Depression years and advent of World War II demanded sharper satiric voices. And, although magazines of the 1940s still published caricature, editors turned increasingly to photography. Influenced by changes in art, humor, literature, and fame in an age of television, caricature evolved into new forms and specialized niches. In its heyday, caricature helped people adapt to change, alleviating the shock of modern art, leveling high and low cultural disparities, and mocking the new celebrity industry. Furthermore, in the celebrity-crazed press of the late twentieth century, witty, personality-based celebrity caricature seemed to be making a come-back.
—Wendy Wick Reaves
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