James Gillray: Shocking satire two centuries old
Anyone shocked by the distasteful tone of political discourse this election cycle ought to take a look at the work of James Gillray on display at the Center for Visual Art. The guy was rough. Donald Trump rough. And then some.
Unlike Trump, though, the inventor of what we now know as the political cartoon was gifted with fine art-making skills and a sense of humor. His skewering of European politics and social customs around the turn of the 18th century was brutal, but it was funny and expertly rendered in scores of hand-colored etchings.
The CVA is showing them in an exhibit titled “Under the Guillotine: James Gillray and Contemporary Counterparts,” pairing the British legend’s work, collected over the years by University of Denver professor Arthur N. Gilbert, with three living artists who delve into satire, Molly Crabapple, Chris Dacre and Deb Sokolow.
The present-day trio offers some keen perspective on the efforts their caricaturist forefather. They are, quite simply, not as vicious.
Of course, they didn’t have Gillray’s era to work with, a time when royalty was dwindling
and Napoleon was rising, when revolution was in the air and freedom of speech was, lucky for the artist, tolerated.
Even today Gillray couldn’t produce the sort of things he made without some social censorship, repugnant images of the aristocracy portrayed as either gaunt and ghostly or roly-poly fat with the spoils of their riches and power.
Consider: “Sin, Death and the Devil,” from 1792, which depicts the very Queen of England naked from the waist up and donning a serpent’s tail, her hand candidly on the crotch of a candidate for prime minister she was rumored to have favored, and slept with. It’s slightly dirty, overtly mean.
Or the work descriptively titled, “More Pigs Than Teats, or — the New Litter of Hungry Grunters, Sucking John Bull’s Old Sow to Death.” The drawing puts the heads of politicians on pig bodies and has them scrambling to suck the life out of a tired mother hog, a stand-in for the English state. The faces are recognizable and the criticism pointed.
Nothing was above Gillray’s target. He took on the wars and scandals of his day, taking sharp aim at Napoleon himself in many pieces. He was savage about health care, business practices and consumerism.
He did have a lighter side, sort of. In one pair of cartoons, he mocks marriage, first showing a couple in courtship, staring adoringly and making music together. The second presents a scene long after the wedding, in a house disrupted by screaming cats and babies and the grimaces of marital discord.
Gillray got away with all of it, possibly because his drawings are infinitely entertaining. His pen was precise, creating scores of tiny lines that come together to create both crystal clear images and delicate shading that adds visual and emotional depth to his work. His tinting is never subtle, with bright greens, reds and yellows adding an unsavory air to the scenery. Always, there is a layering of detail, telling objects that build character and relate stories.
The current-day work is its own brand of extreme. Dacre seems closest to Gillray's direct approach. The military veteran makes posters questioning his own choice to join the service as a teen. They have stark, violent imagery and slogans, like “Aim High,” making fun of the U.S. Army’s ad campaigns.
Crabapple’s detailed drawings link her admirably to the old master, as well. She, too, has a way with a pen, creating evocative pictures of children scavenging through trash bins for food in Islamic State-occupied Syria, or Donald Trump himself cavorting with an Arab sheik.
Sokolow has her own unique sense of humor, creating a series of posters that treat death-cult leader Jim Jones as a political candidate; “JIM JONES KNOWS PEOPLE” one reads. She also has a series of drawings based on the local conspiracy theory that Denver International Airport harbors some sort of secret government base underground. It’s excerpted from a previous show at Abrons Art Center in New York City, where it was less confusing that what’s on the walls at CVA.
But curator Cecily Cullen’s pairing of the new and the old works terrifically. It’s a talented group, and there’s a sentimental connection between the objects.
More importantly, it makes Gillray’s cartoons fit better into the gallery. The CVA is really stretching here by showing two-century-old drawings in a place devoted to contemporary art. He should technically be off limits in this space.
But he proves relevant. Politicians still suckle off the state. Revolutions continue to disrupt order, and marriage remains difficult for anyone who dares.
Gillray is, always and probably forever, contemporary.
James Gillray, “The Plumb-Pudding in Danger; – or – State Epicures Taking un Petit Souper.” Hand-colored etching. 1805.
James Gillray, “The Cow-Pock – or – The Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculations.” Hand-colored etching, 1802. Images provided by The Center for Visual Art
Molly Crabapple, “Clocktower, Raqqa under ISIS, 2014.” Pen, ink, paper, 2014.
Chris Dacre, Series: “As Seen on T.V.” Pen, ink, paper, 2014.
Deb Sokolow, “Campaign Sign 1.” Graphite, ink, acrylic, collage, tape on paper, 2013.