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spacer Al Smith

The art of caricature—the distortion of the face or figure for satiric purposes—claims a long tradition in Western art. For centuries, comically exaggerated portrayals served the purpose of ridicule and protest, probing beneath outward appearances to expose hidden, disreputable character traits. In early twentieth-century America, however, caricaturists deployed a fresh approach, inventing a form of stylized portraiture that responded to the new preoccupation with mass-media–generated fame. They chose for their subjects colorful personalities rather than the corrupt officials. Their epigrammatic likenesses, transformed by a modern aesthetic and a detached, sophisticated wit, appealed to an audience hungry for emblems of the emerging celebrity culture.

During the height of its vogue between the two world wars, caricature of the famous permeated the press and graced New York City café walls, theater curtains, and silk dresses. Unlike editorial cartoonists, caricaturists did not attempt to expose, analyze, or criticize. "It is not the caricaturist's business to be penetrating," Ralph 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 an antiseptic sting.

Al Smith installation mural
Al Smith/ Paolo Garretto

This exhibition was made possible in part by the Smithsonian Institution Special Exhibition Fund, the Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Studies Fund, the Marpat Foundation, the Max and Victoria Dreyfus Foundation Inc., Mrs. John Timberlake Gibson, NationsBank, and The Kiplinger Foundation.

Catalog: Celebrity Caricature in America, by Wendy Wick Reaves

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