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Six Caricatures of Me in Paris

It’s a warm, lazy Sunday afternoon in Montmartre and I’m strolling around the Place du Tertre, looking at the artists plying their trade.  Portraitists and caricaturists feature among them.  Of these two art forms, it is caricature that holds a fascination for me, for the caricaturist’s art is a tricky one.  Unlike portraitists, who attempt to capture an exact likeness – and, if lucky, perhaps also the inner essence of their sitters, like the great Velázquez did – the caricaturist’s business is to distort and exaggerate whilst preserving the recognisability of their subjects.  It’s an art form requiring fine balance, for any deviation from true likeness comes at the expense of recognisability.  Any distortion introduced must preserve the individuation of the subject.  This deliberate deviation from true likeness is definitional to caricature, for in that deviation lies the exaggeration and diminution that underlies the satire that the caricaturist intends to convey.  Ridicule, insincere flattery, mockery, character send-ups and even savage humour are some of the mechanisms through which caricaturists transmit their derision, and ultimately their intent.

For the caricaturist, accuracy of representation is not material.  Often a greater truth can be conveyed through selection and emphasis than the mere mirroring of image.  Yet all would be futile if in the process of distortion, clear identification of the subject is lost.  Caricaturists must not only choose which features of their subjects to distort, but also how to distort them.  These distortions range in degree from the mild to the grotesque, and humour, although featuring strongly in caricature, is not its essence, neither is it always intended.

But how is a person’s likeness preserved though being deliberately distorted?  Much research has been done on this, but technically, caricaturists exaggerate ‘distinctive features’ of the human face, those features by means of which viewers discriminate face from face and identify individuals.  According to Perkins, at least within a culture, the phenomenon of caricature recognition suggests that constancies prevail.1,2  In another study, Harmon holds that 21 dimensions sufficed to effectively sort a population of 256 portraits from each other (e.g. hairline, jowls, nose, etc), and that a few attributes are sufficient to reliably single out an individual from a population.3,4

What attracts me to caricature is precisely the overlay on likeliness that the caricaturist imposes.  In the case of important people, these may have political or ideological slants, and a lot is known in the media, at least, about the subjects.  But what about an ordinary sitter for a caricature?  How would you, as a pavement caricaturist, depict someone off the street who sits for you and about whom you know nothing?  Such caricaturists abound at the Place du Tertre, and around the Centre Georges Pompidou more towards the centre of Paris.  To better understand their craft, I decided to sit for six caricaturists over two days to see what affront I impart to the world.

I continue to mill around the Place du Tertre, but now with the intent of choosing a caricaturist for whom to sit.  After assessing the works of dozens of artists from the displays at their stands, I settle down at my first caricaturist.  He seems of Asian descent and has a passably good portfolio.  I pay over my twenty euros and take my seat on a canvas fold-out chair.  He continually looks me up and down, and then settles on what appears to be a serious caricature of me.  Not that I can glean it from the drawing, for as a sitter you face its obverse side and are only shown the final product when the artist is done.  But I can surmise seriousness from the faces of passers-by who stop, look at the drawing and frown.  No smiles.  The caricature turns out rather dark and severe.  He managed to catch my pensive side, perhaps even the repressed neuroses lurking within.  The moment I get handed over my drawing, a tube seller appears from nowhere.  For three euros, I have a hard tube in which to roll up my drawing protectively.  You can’t beat free enterprise.

The next artist I happen upon was just about to pack up for the day so hastily draws me in fifteen minutes.  No.  To me, he completely missed the boat, although not everyone agrees.  I look like a gauche teenager, like Alfred E. Neuman, the fictitious cover boy of Mad magazine.  Graham would say he got it spot-on.

I choose my third artist with greater care and find someone who appears to be an artiste-philosophe of sorts.  I like the caricature he is busy with and ask his price.  It’s forty euros – double the going rate.  Hmmm…  I’ll sit.  He takes his seat opposite mine, lights up a smoke and studies me for a long time.  He puffs and looks, puffs and looks…  “Hmmm, I am searching for an angle of attack on your face, but it is not coming to me,” he says, puffing out forcibly then looking away, as if to implore inspiration from a more yielding space.  “Thank you for being so thoughtful,” I say.  “People don’t normally care how they attack my face.”  “Oh?”  He inspects and ponders, inspects and ponders.  “Hmmm…  What do you do, monsieur?” he asks.  “Finance,” I reply.  “Finance?  Finance!  That tells me ‘rien’, zero, nothing.  That does not inspire at all, monsieur!  Please, try again, what else do you do?” he pleads.  “Good question…  Well, I write and play the piano a bit…”  “Pianoooooo!  Pianooooo, ah, ça y’est monsieur!  That is better, much, much better!”  He finds his elusive angle of attack after a minute or so, and he’s the best of the lot.  We chat while he draws.  “Why do you artists all paint from the sitter’s left side?”  “It’s a long story, monsieur.  Let’s put it down to us artists being socialists.”  “Ah, that explains it, I see.”  Upon finishing, my artiste-philosophe rolls up his work into my tube, and as he does so, assesses my other two caricatures.  “Numero 1, oui, ça va, mais Numero 2, non, that is not you…”  So he’s an art critic as well.

 

The next three caricatures I have drawn in the square before the Centre Georges Pompidou in central Paris.  A clarinetist busks, roller skaters drift by, tourists mill around and the flâneurs are out.  A dozen artists or so are at their business on a Monday afternoon.  One of them does rather precise caricatures in profile only.  He works methodically and with intent.  I like his work.  He has a fine and accurate line, and I’m quite pleased with Caricature No. 4.  There are two more caricatures to go and my time in Paris is ticking by.  Artist No 5 approaches me for work, as does artist No 6, his neighbour.  I cast a glance at their trestles and do not dislike what I see.  There’s no time to lose.  One of them suggests that in order to hurry matters along, they could both draw me at the same time.  How expedient, they’re on.  There’s only one proviso, that they not influence each other while drawing.  “No, monsieur.  Jamais!  We express differently and take pride in our individuality as artists!”  We sit down on fold-up chairs for the double-drawing session.  No. 5 squints and draws, takes sightings of me with a crayon in his outstretched hand from time to time, then squints and draws away.  No. 6 scribbles gayly away with a cigarette hanging from his lips, his one eye blinking the smoke away as it trickles up his face.  To each his style.  Quite a hive of industry, our little threesome.

 

The results of their endeavours are appended for you to see.  But oh, that nose…  It’s apparently my stand-out feature.  Yet, compared to my favourite caricature, one taken in Rome in 2002, the Parisian caricaturists were rather forgiving.  The Roman artist got it right.  He was drawing Pinocchio.  All that lying had come back to bite.  See for yourself.

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Notes, to Six Caricatures in Paris.

  1. David Perkins, ‘A Definition of Caricature and Caricature and Recognition’, Studies in Visual Communication, Volume 2 Issue 1 Spring 1975, Article 2, published by Penn Libraries, University of Pennsylvania.
  2. Identifying features can range in number from an iconic single feature of a famous person to many features required of a relatively nondescript person. Perkins holds that there is a number of key properties of a person’s physiognomy that are necessary, and in combination, sufficient for individuation.  That is, recognition is impaired if any one of these key features is contra-indicated or blocked.  In a study of caricatures of US ex-President Nixon, Perkins demonstrates that cartoonists need to get four of his attributes right, viz. the nose, hairline, jowls, and his ‘box’ chin.  I would venture that Donald Trump could be referenced by little more than a wavy orange wig on a flattish oval.  This, however, is more convention than recognisability – few people have this attribute.
  3. D. Harmon, ‘The Recognition of Faces’. Scientific American 229(5):pp.70-84, 1973.
  4. Some individuals, whose faces lack distinctive or stand-out features, whilst easy to draw, are challenging to caricature. They would need more dimensions to be individuated.  In their case, recognition suffers immediately from distortion, as there are no ‘stand-out anchors’ to preserve identity through the distortion process – Harmon.