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Once More, Wit Style

Phillips Collection exhibit highlights work of political cartoonists Oliphant and Daumier Both take similar approaches to politics, caricature

Over the next month, the end of one Congress will push up against the start of another, creating a fast, circular momentum known as Washington’s revolving door. It starts slowly, spitting out the campaign jockeys at first, but inevitably gains speed, gobbling up new members, staff, lobbyists, journalists, nonprofiteers and activists, while depositing the cycle’s losers on the curb.

It is a time of tedium and inevitability, of the power and constancy of politics.

Even without the fiscal cliff stress, this is the time in the political cycle where nothing is certain. But at least until inauguration day — when much of the federal do-si-do will be over — there is a quiet haven for those in need of art therapy.

On the third floor of The Phillips Collection in Dupont Circle, the installation “Political Wits, 100 Years Apart: Daumier and Oliphant at the Phillips” also exhibits the tedium, inevitability, power and constancy of politics in our modern world, with the added leavening of humor.

The installation juxtaposes two of history’s great political satirists: 19th-century editorial cartoonist and artist Honore Daumier and Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Patrick Oliphant. The two artists are closely linked to The Phillips Collection and so, by extension, they are connected to Washington.

“[Daumier] is one of the first artists that [art collector and Pittsburgh businessman] Duncan Phillips took a deep interest in,” explains Eliza Rathbone, chief curator of The Phillips Collection. “So we have one of the outstanding collections of Daumier in the United States.”

The cartoonist focused on the world around him, not the lofty subjects of history and literature. His work portrayed refugees, laborers, artists and politicians.

“[Daumier’s art] is meant to be very powerful, especially the political ones, powerful and appalling and deliberately so,” Rathbone says.

“He was, of course, always on the side of the common man and of the poor. Sometimes in his paintings he can make a simple washerwoman look like a monumental creature, but his humor — especially when he pokes fun at married couples, or performers on the stage, or the audience, or the crowd going to an exhibition — also has a tender side,” Rathbone says of Daumier, who died in 1879.

Oliphant, on the other hand, is a contemporary working artist.

In a 2000 Washington Post opinion piece, Oliphant wrote: “I have been on an intravenous drip-feed of [Daumier’s] work for a good part of my life. … I learned from [Daumier] that caricature — and, by natural extension, political cartooning — is a language unto itself, with shades and accents to its vocabulary prompted by the happenings of the day. It is an art of symbols, and where no symbols exist one must invent them. The pear-shaped symbol [he] employed to represent the king is a touch of subversive genius.”

Finding the Humor

Daumier’s 1834 “Le Ventre Legislatif” (The Legislative Belly), for example, is a perfect example of how his talent as a draftman and satirist dovetail. The scene is a view of France’s Chamber of Deputies, with the various legislative characters sitting along a multitiered dais. The scene is so immediate and perfectly modern that the viewer will start at its familiarity and snort at the humor.

“All those guys and they are all physical types,” Rathbone says with a laugh. “You see it, and you think that Daumier could go up to Capitol Hill today and do some pretty funny work.”

“Le Ventre Legislatif” is just one example of how Daumier’s quick eye, acerbic wit and tender humor is communicated through the scenes he created.

Oliphant, as Daumier’s posthumous protege, approaches politics and caricatures similarly.

“[Oliphant] can make fun of anybody,” Rathbone says. “It doesn’t matter which side of politics you’re on or what level of society, he can find the humor.”

On the same wall as “Le Ventre Legislatif” is Oliphant’s 2000 lithograph “Tweedledum and Tweedledee.” The picture depicts then-presidential contenders Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush as the “Alice in Wonderland” namesakes.

“[Caricature] exaggerates the predominant features of an individual,” Rathbone explains. “A caricaturist picks certain features to make dominant to convey this — something that is kind of penetrating.”

Perhaps the highlight of this installation is Oliphant’s “Homage to Daumier” (2000), which he personally donated to the Phillips. It depicts the artist in front of the largest Daumier painting in the museum, “The Uprising” (1860).

In Oliphant’s version, he has put himself in front of the hanging painting. He is leaning into the painting but staring out to the viewer wide-eyed and gobsmacked. “Homage to Daumier” acknowledges the older artist as Oliphant’s mentor and his great inspiration.

“Political Wits, 100 Years Apart: Daumier and Oliphant at the Phillips” is on exhibit through Jan. 20 at The Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW.