Early Adopters: The Social Media Prototypes of Daumier and Warhol

February 11, 2016


Early Adopters: The Social Media Prototypes of Daumier and Warhol,

Now on View at the Zimmerli


New Brunswick, NJ – Artists have always examined the intricacies of human nature – whether in their work or through the reactions of the viewer. Two new exhibitions at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers demonstrate how artists working nearly 150 years apart applied their understanding of the public’s fallibility to create iconic images. Honoré Daumier and the Art of La Caricature and More than Fifteen Minutes of Fame: Warhol’s Prints and Photographs, both drawn from the museum’s extensive print collection and on view through July 31, demonstrate how these artists took advantage of the new technologies of their eras to disseminate their work to a broad public, influencing the views and tastes of their contemporaries. Daumier and Warhol also established legacies that remain relevant in today’s visual political commentary and pop culture, particularly as seen in the endless supply of – and demand for – ideas and images in today’s social media.


“Both exhibitions provide perspective about prototypes of what we now identify as social media, especially its role in shaping perceptions about celebrity and historical events,” observes Christine Giviskos, Curator of Prints, Drawings, and European Art. “We tend to think of social media as a result of new technology. But, in fact, technology simply provides a broader and faster delivery method for universal ideas that have been circulating for years. The critical insight, the creativity, and the desire to elicit reaction – all the basis of ‘social’ messages – were always there.”


In the early 19th century, before the widespread availability of photographs and daily newspapers, illustrators and portraitists embraced the relatively new medium of lithography, which became an economical method to mass-produce and distribute images. Parisian journalist and publisher Charles Philipon also recognized the potential of the medium to disseminate his own criticism of the repressive government of King Louis-Philippe. In 1830, he hired a team of artists for his weekly satirical journal, La Caricature. Produced and distributed in the style of today’s popular tabloids, their lithographs repeatedly featured both major and minor officials acting in league with the king.


Philipon additionally commissioned Honoré Daumier (1808–1879), a budding sculptor within the group, to create a series of clay busts, now known collectively as Celebrities of the Juste-Milieu. Daumier’s models served as a reference point for the artists so that their caricatures were recognizable portrayals of the government officials. Boasting the only complete set of the Celebrities of the Juste-Milieu in terra cotta in the United States, the Zimmerli presents a rare opportunity to view these expressive and lively busts with 20 corresponding prints by Daumier and his La Caricature colleagues J. J. Grandville and Charles Traviès.


Daumier’s conception and choices for exaggerating each man’s features set a precedent in the history of political caricatures. The accompanying commentary was no less biting than that of today: grotesque physical traits, often combined with symbols and puns, implied lack of character, incompetence, and even outright criminality. The elongated head on Daumier’s sculpture of Bank of France president Jacques Lefebvre, for example, expresses a sinister character, even in its quickly created miniature form. The more detailed lithograph clearly shows his mastery of the figure in the detailed Mr. Jacot-Lefaive (1833) and allowed Daumier to take the commentary a step further: altering the financier’s name into a combination meaning “parrot” and “bean,” as well as inventing a fake coat of arms that depicts bags of money supporting an open account book. Daumier was even more blatant in his criticism of Minister of Justice Jean-Charles Persil with the caption “the cruelest enemy of liberty and press.” Fashioning the coat of arms with a guillotine and severed head, Daumier also titled the portrait Père-Scie (1833) – or “Father Saw” – to emphasize Persil’s severe and sustained repression of supporters of liberal causes.


Like Daumier, Andy Warhol (1928–1987) came to public attention against a background of social upheaval. Although not known for the expression of his own opinions about political issues or current events, Warhol used the power of controversy and celebrity in his works. Many of his subjects became such familiar icons that he, in turn, enjoyed a level of fame and notoriety not common to the artists of his time. Warhol’s singular personality and seminal works continue to influence today’s art and popular culture, including any number of apps that allow users to “Warholize” their personal photos. The exhibition includes the iconic Vegetarian Vegetable (from Campbell’s Soup II) and several recently acquired screenprints that are being shown at the Zimmerli for the first time: Joseph Beuys, Alexander the Great, and Brooklyn Bridge, plus Annie Oakley and Sitting Bull (from the series Cowboys and Indians).


In the early 1960s, Warhol began a series of silkscreened paintings titled Death and Disasters, which he revisited over the next decade. He used print media clippings as his source – ranging from local news stories about suicides, race riots, and car crashes, to celebrities frozen in moments of tragedy or mourning. The mechanical repetition of Warhol’s death and disaster images can be seen as a comment on the numbing presence of, and our consequent desensitization to, these kinds of images in everyday life. However, the artist’s apparent neutrality concerning politics and current events provides an opportunity for viewers to confront and consider their own reactions to political issues and the impact of celebrity culture on our society. One of the most recognized images from this series, six variations of Electric Chair (1971) – all in brash, unnatural colors – evoke the stark condition of an execution chamber. Although Warhol denied conveying any social or political content, the works are loaded with possible meanings about the judicial system and capital punishment. The source photograph was a 1953 press image that shows the chamber at Sing Sing prison in New York at the time Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who had been convicted as spies, were executed. In addition, he exhibited the works during a period when New York State was observing a moratorium on executions.


The exhibition also features Warhol’s Polaroids of celebrities and socialites. While the format had served as a preliminary step in the process of creating his signature portraits since the 1950s, the photos are now seen as art in and of themselves. Warhol’s zealous documentation of the people around him now can be seen as a precursor to YouTube and Instagram, which reinforce his belief that “repetition adds up to reputation.” He would take over a hundred Polaroids of a person before selecting the final image to transfer onto canvas or paper, leaving an archive that the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts has generously donated to art institutions around the world in recent years. The Zimmerli’s selection includes such 1980s celebrities as Caroline, Princess of Monaco; Bob Colacello; Mariel Hemingway; Sylvester Stallone; Pia Zadora; and others. In this exhibition, they are arranged to demonstrate how Warhol carefully orchestrated his sitters’ portrait sessions to exaggerate stereotypical gender differences. For women, he emphasized aspects of “feminine” glamour and beauty, seen especially in their thick white makeup and bright red lipstick. In contrast, Warhol staged men in ways that featured their hands holding props that project some aspect of their personality or profession.


Giviskos adds that these visionary artists deliberately entered the mainstream of art history. “They understood the significance of their predecessors, as well as the importance of becoming part of the canon themselves. Daumier and his colleagues sought to elevate the still-new medium of lithography to the level of serious art. And Warhol, of course, along with other Pop artists, swiftly blurred the lines between ‘high art’ and pop culture. Their contributions are recognizable not only in the arts, but across the media we now encounter every day.”


Honoré Daumier and the Art of La Caricature is organized by Christine Giviskos, Curator of Prints, Drawings, and European Art. More than Fifteen Minutes of Fame: Warhol’s Prints and Photographs was conceived by Marilyn Symmes, the museum’s retired Curator of Prints and Drawings, and realized with the help of Christina Weyl, Curatorial Assistant.