“James Gillray was a product of his time,” said print collector Arthur Gilbert in an opening statement about a man called the “father of modern caricature.” Gilbert introduced 71 colored etchings, political cartoons by Gillray, who was born in 1756 in Chelsea and worked into the early 19 century.
The illustrations touch on issues still of vital concern today: politics and life, food, health, love and marriage, scandal, violence, revolution, war and a world out of balance. They are exhibited at Metropolitan State University’s Center for Visual Art in the Santa Fe Arts District through March 19, with art by three contemporary counterparts: Molly Crabtree, Chris Dacre and Deb Sokolow.
All but one of the exhibited prints belong to Gilbert. He said he owns 144 of them and keeps collecting through contacts all over the world.
Gilbert is a historian who has taught at DU’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies since 1961. In his opening exhibit remarks, he dedicated the show to those who lost their lives in the shootings at the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine in Paris in January 2015. He also saw parallels between Gillray’s output of work and that of the Spanish artist Goya — but Goya was not as free to publish and display his work. Gillray, despite outrageous criticism of the Royal Family, British, French and other European politicians, “died in bed.”
No one knows how many of these prints were originally published, Gilbert said. The need to hand color each one — a cottage industry — was a limiting factor. When new, they were displayed in the large bay window of the print shop, where illiterate people could enjoy them — and recognize those pictured.
Gilbert’s deep knowledge of the related history is apparent in his captions for the caricatures. (When you visit, allow time to read them). Example: Dated March 5, 1806: “More Pigs than Teats — or The New Litter of Hungry Grunters, Sucking John Bull’s Old Sow to Death,” shows a large number of piglets, each with the head of a prominent politician, and a poor, old, broken-down sow.
Another, said to be the most famous political cartoon of all time: “The Plum-Pudding in Danger — o r — State Epicures Taking un Petit Souper.” It depicts William Pitt and Napoleon each slicing off a piece of the world (Europe by Napoleon and Oceana by Pitt). Gilbert said, “It holds a place in British art not unlike Grant Woods’ `American Gothic’ does in the United States. It’s a simple but powerful depiction of Lord Acton’s famous Dictum that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
His collection on health includes one about vaccination for cowpox that reminds one of the controversy about vaccines today, and there are references to vastly overweight and slovenly Royals and others that ring a bell as we read about increases in obesity today.
Gilbert will teach a related class at Metro called “Under the Guillotine,” and a panel discussion with Gilbert and three Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonists is planned at 6 p.m. on March 2 at the gallery: Jim Borgman, Mike Keefe and Signe Wilkinson.
Mike Keefe, of Denver, was also present at the opening of the Gillray exhibit and spoke about a collection of Bill Mauldin’s cartoons about soldiers, a gift from his father, that started him on his career. Keefe long worked at the Denver Post and now draws a line of syndicated cartoons.
IF you go:
“Under the Guillotine” is exhibited at the Metro State University Center for Visual Art, 965 Santa Fe Drive, Denver, through March 19. Admission is free. Hours: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; 12 to 5 p.m. Saturdays-holidays excepted. 303-294-5207. msudenver.edu/cva.