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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Snickering is strongly encouraged at a new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Giggles and guffaws that typically would be met with a cold stare in the museum's hushed galleries are the goal of "Infinite Jest: Caricature and Satire from Leonardo to Levine," which runs until the beginning of March.
"Oh! This is horrendous!" laughed Richard Miller, 81, a New York City abstract artist enjoying the show with friends.
Miller was looking at a grotesque drawing of a drooling, runny-nosed baker, a spoof on culinary hygiene in the 18th century by Britain's Thomas Rowlandson, who is considered one of the greatest contributors to caricature's Golden Age, the late 1700s to early 1800s.
Pulled from the museum's collection of 1.2 million drawings and prints, the 162 pieces in the exhibit chronicle how sarcasm blossomed as an art form from the 1600s until today.
Arranged to spotlight the influence early caricaturists had on future generations, the show inadvertently reveals that mankind basically has three jokes that it has been telling for centuries - about food, sex, and power.
"The show is about humor but it also has this deeper side," said associate curator Constance McPhee, who with curator Nadine Orenstein spent two years creating the show.
A major focus of the exhibition is the rich and politically powerful, skewered with abandon by artists who largely escaped censorship often faced by writers.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries in Britain and for a shorter time in France, satirical drawings were regularly posted in storefront windows of print shops, attracting crowds who then bought the prints for albums shared at night with family and friends.
"Like we have the Daily Show or Saturday Night Live -- it's that shared political humor," Orenstein said.
Hilariously irreverent and at times shockingly crude, some of the drawings seem more likely to be ripped from the pages of a humor magazine than selected from the archives of a museum.
"The French usually maintain a modicum of civility, except here," said Orenstein, gazing at a print that surfaced before the French cracked down on caricaturists in 1835, insisting they gain approval first from any person they planned to draw.
A print by an anonymous artist called "The Bombardment of All the Thrones of Europe" takes Catherine the Great to task for her unsuccessful attempts to organize foreign military expeditions against revolutionary France.
It shows the Russian empress bare breasted and under scatological assault from all sides, including a vomiting King Louis XVI and a dozen bare-bottomed revolutionaries, the "sans-culottes," who send flatulent insults in her general direction.
Caricature, from the Italian words carico, to load, and caricare, to exaggerate, began in Europe in the 1600s after admirers began copying drawings of grotesque heads by Leonardo da Vinci, who was known for his fascination with physical perfection but was equally mesmerized by abnormalities.
It quickly became popular, and it wasn't long before serious artists turned to caricature to earn money, including painters such as Francisco Goya of Spain and France's Eugene Delacroix who are included in the show.
Others worked strictly as visual humorists, such as Britain's James Gillray. The exhibit includes his 1787 drawing "Monstrous Craws at a New Coalition Feast," in which he flays the reigning royals -- King George III, Queen Charlotte and George Prince of Wales -- for their unabashed greed and miserly ways. The drawing shows the three sitting around a dinner table piled high with cash, ladling money down their gullets, which are already stuffed like a pelican's filled pouch.
Reporting by Editing by Barbara Goldberg; editing by Patricia Reaney