Last November 15 I participated in the postgraduate symposium of the Warburg Institute Mnemonic Waves, with a paper on caricatures and the post-Warburgian studies titled Caricatures as Pathosformeln. Gombrich, Warburg, and the Emotions, of which I publish here the text.
1. The melting face
In 1945 the Italian caricaturist Enrico Gianeri, aka GEC, published a book titled Il Cesare di Cartapesta (The Papier-Mâché Caesar); subtitle: Mussolini in caricature. The book is a repertoire of anti-fascist caricatures that attack Mussolini’s image as much as all aspects of fascist Italy and results in a satirical history of fascism. GEC argues that caricature-makers engaged a semiotic battle against fascist propaganda: the deformation of Mussolini’s image counter-attacked the obsessive trans-medial broadcasting of the dictator’s portrait. As the ultimate example of the ubiquitous presence of the portrait, GEC mentions the reproduction of Mussolini’s face on soap bars:
He impressed himself in scented bars of soap that, being consumed, gave almost a reflex of the historical praxis. After use the aggressive jawbones wilted, the face slimmed down, the heavy eyelids slid onto the gaze of the bloody fool.
The consumption of the face made of soap echoes the stylistic procedure of caricature, which likewise disfigures Mussolini’s image. And it seductively suggests a possible connection between the disfigurement pursued through images and that produced by historical processes. GEC implies a secret correlation between the deformed image of Mussolini recurring in caricatures and the actual deformation of his body. Of course, we rationally refuse that caricature could distort reality. Still, we instinctively identify Napoleon with the small man portraited by Gillray, and Mussolini with the ridiculous charlatan depicted by Low. While is not that irrational establishing a connection between the rage embodied in caricatures and the rage leading to the final violent execution of the Duce. With this paper, I’ll discuss the psychic and emotional energies of images, convincingly asserting the magical power of caricatures.
2. The experiment of caricature
The unease of magic underlies the multi-layered reflection that Ernst Gombrich, with the fundamental support of Ernst Kris, dedicated to satirical images and mainly caricatures.
In their article ‘The Principles of Caricature’, published in the British Journal of Medical Psychology in 1938, Kris and Gombrich addressed caricature as a psychological device analogous to the verbal wit studied by Freud, which enables the release of aggressiveness in a controlled scenario. Caricature activates a rationally supervised regression that liberates unconscious impulses through a formalised practice. This explanation is traced back to Warburg’s description of the progressive secularisation of images, leading from the belief in their magical power to the critical and rational use of images as symbols.
In this framework, caricature is the secularised ‘evolution’ of aggressive images entrusted with a magical manipulation of reality and conceived to actually hurt the targets. Satirical disfigurement substitutes the actual violence with a metaphor: the hostile action is accomplished altering the portrait, and the aggression stays in the aesthetic sphere. Magic seems neutralised, though the represented deformation sticks with the subject as a sort of enchantment, as a form of magic played by our minds. A good caricature, Gombrich writes in his 1962 essay ‘The Experiment of Caricature’, «offers a visual interpretation of a physiognomy which can never forget and which the victim will always seem to carry around with him like a man bewitched».
The Gombrich-Kris theory is haunted by the same ambiguity haunting Warburg’s historical scheme: a suspect of magical power remains hidden in the psychic and emotional force emanating from caricature. Like Napoleon, like Mussolini, the deformed figure is merged with its caricature, and the represented deformation is always on the verge of affecting reality. As pathosformeln, caricatures embody an emotional experience that can be potentially reactivated and transferred to the context of existence of images.
3. The body as a symbolic form
The emotional potential of caricatures is mostly attached to their treatment of the human body. As explained by Erwin Panofsky, the artistic representation of the body is a symbolic form, which entails specific cognitive effects and cultural meanings understood as consequences of a worldview. Reacting to the abstract rigidity of medieval art, Renaissance art intended to capture the organic movement of the body and established a new set of proportional relations for the representation of the human figure. However, theoretical reflections such as Alberti’s and Leonardo’s confronted the ideal proportions of perfect beauty with the empirical observation of reality, thus introducing a subjective standpoint in the rendering of the human body. Rather than responding to universal rules, the human image is shaped by the subjective visual experience of the painter. Such a conceptual move paths the way for the birth of caricature, which first emerges in Leonardo’s sketchbooks while he experiments with the subjective deformation of body proportions. Similarly, the need for empirical observation steps in Dürer sophisticated meditation on the geometrical proportions of the human body while the artist, as we know from Warburg’s studies, is trying to capture the expressivity rediscovered in the ancient formula of movement conveying extreme feelings and emotions. Ultimately, the emergence of caricature and the emergence of pathosformeln are associated by the fact that in both cases the reproduction of objective human proportions is overtaken by the subjective deformation needed to emphasise expressions. Which means, the subjective introduction of disproportions alters the symbolic form of the human body and charge it with emotional and psychological meanings.
4. The subjective body
Paraphrasing Gombrich’s interpretation, the experiment of caricature consists in amplifying the functioning of pathos formula by exasperating the subjective deformation of human physiognomy. In his essays of the Sixties, Gombrich described caricature as a cognitive experiment on perception and a result of the detachment of art from naturalism. Rather than imitating it, artists produce a subjective equivalent of reality enabled by a particularly bold stylisation. The subjective forms created by caricature are expressive as they are encoded in the semiotic system of the representation of the body, which the observer can decode relying on its embodied experience. Still, Gombrich realises that the successful decoding doesn’t depend on the realistic rendering of the body. On the contrary, the more abstract the representation is, the more effective it can become. As Gombrich demonstrates through the experimentation of Rodolphe Töpffer, images can convey emotions without being realistic, and solely relying on the cognitive effects elicited by lines drew as purely conventional symbols. Caricatures don’t reproduce a face but provide a synthetic equivalence of that face conceived to provoke a set of psychological and emotional responses. Somehow, Töpffer knows the signs will convey certain responses because he tested them on him, on his inner knowledge of emotional communication. Progressively adjusting his sketches, Töpffer enhances the expressivity of his characters by simplifying their physiognomies to isolate and emphasise the traits that convey a specific emotional state. This procedure resonates with a fundamental mechanism of human cognition, which Gombrich connects to «inborn responses» and «biologically conditioned» mental sets: the human mind is attracted by the extraction and overstatement of diverging signs; it is attracted by exceptions and disproportions.
5. Emotional intelligence
Gombrich further explained the cognitive responsiveness to disproportions in a lecture given at Johns Hopkins University in October 1970. In face recognition, he says, our minds react to even one distinctive sign that mark the recognisability of the individual. «We generally take in the mask before we notice the face», Gombrich states. Deviations from the norm attract our attention and guarantee recognition, as we are originally programmed for the «noticing of unlikeness, of that departure from the norm that stands out and sticks in the mind».
This biologically conditioned “programme” has been confirmed by studies on perception conducted from a neurocognitive perspective. The human brain perceives reality and makes sense of it by isolating details, stressing patterns, emphasising relevant features, to extract meaningful shapes and forms from the tangle of perception. Misshapings and exaggerations enhance recognition, as demonstrated in behavioural studies on animals, such as the famous “seagull chick experiment”. Researchers observed that when begging for food, a seagull chick pecks on a prominent red spot on its mother’s yellow beak. Though, if shown a simplified, exaggerated abstraction of the beak, a stick with three red stripes on it, the chick pecks on it more vigorously, and proves to prefer it to the mother’s beak. Chimpanzees as well showed enhanced reactions to augmented stimuli, particularly in recognition of faces with exaggerated features.
The use of hyperbole in arts can be considered as a cultural translation of the exaggerated-beak effect, highlighting the fact that augmented sign stimuli produce enhanced cognitive effects.
Gombrich is describing the same cognitive-biological phenomenon when he says that in the process of facial and emotional recognition «the inner sense always exaggerates», and «the extreme, the abnormal, sticks in the mind and marks the type for us». In explaining this cognitive mechanism, Gombrich understood that our comprehension of faces and their emotional configuration is not grounded on the recognition of a likely visual schema but an inborn disposition to unconscious imitation mediated by empathy. The baby responding with a smile to the smiling mother is understanding what s/he sees by re-enacting it. Which corroborates, Gombrich writes, «the hypothesis that we interpret and code the perception of our fellow creatures not so much in visual as in muscular terms». We know that the muscular and bodily comprehension of other’s inner states is enabled by the dynamics of mirror neurons, which somehow Gombrich anticipated with astonishing precision.
Caricature exploits the cognitive relevance of exaggeration to uncover hidden or unnoticed aspects of reality, revealing unconventional knowledge about objects and people, and providing an enhanced perception of facts and feelings. Simultaneously, it elaborates subjective interpretations of reality that are understood empathically. The echoing of cognitive-biological procedures of recognition explains the emotional involvement triggered by caricature and can be easily projected back on our understanding of pathos formula. In both cases, we perceive and appreciate the represented alterations of the body through empathy, through our inborn knowledge of emotional processes. Emotional forms speak to our emotional intelligence. Of course, emotional intelligence interacts with cultural transformations; it is trained and refined by cultural processes, as emotional forms are endlessly readjusted to overcome the crystallisation of styles, and to respond to historical contexts adequately.
6. History Deforming
The fact that our understanding of images is rooted in an emotional and biologically conditioned level of cognition explains their persuasiveness and the historical perception of their magical power.
As already mentioned, Kris and Gombrich tried to restrain the magical force attributed to caricatures by framing it into a rationalist explanation, addressing caricature as the conscious exploitation of an unconscious mechanism. However, the neat separation between images and reality guaranteed by rationalism and abstraction was seriously challenged by historical events.
Thanks to Louis Rose reconstruction, we know that Kris and Gombrich organised an exhibition of Daumier’s caricatures in 1936 Vienna when Nazism was menacingly knocking on Austria’s doors. Stimulated by the work on the exhibition, the two scholars wrote extensively on caricature during the years 1936-1938, before leaving the nazified Vienna, as they planned a comprehensive book-length study on caricature which remained unpublished. In the manuscript, Kris and Gombrich merged the psychological explanation of caricature with its perceptive and cognitive consequences, to reconstruct the historical processes that transformed caricature into a political weapon. When it develops its full potential, as in Daumier’s work, caricature orients its aggressiveness in reconfiguring the mask of its targets, thus unveiling what is hidden by conventional representations of reality.
The exhibition and the book were conceived as political, ‘republican’ statements in praise of freedom, opposing the increasing pressure of Nazi-fascism. The two scholars intended to activate the rational critical function of caricature, managing the symbolic power of images.
Still, something went wrong: in the semiotic context they were facing, the rationally manageable political function of caricature was overwhelmed by the use of aggressive deformation by the Nazi propaganda. Used by Nazism, caricature proves to be an irrational device which triggers emotional, utterly unreasonable responses. Consequently, the unveiling function of deformation is weakened and jeopardised. The deformed images Kris and Gombrich were studying seemed to produce unforeseen and unpredictable effects. Images break the rationalist frame and recover their unease magical power. Deformations spill over reality and invade the world. Daumier’s Ratapoil, the ambiguous, deceitful pro-monarchy propagandist, re-lives in Vienna’s streets, infiltrates universities, replicates his disturbing physiognomy as the pro-Nazi propagandist, or the deceitfully ‘neutral’ flanker.7. Regressive knowledge
In 1929 Rome Warburg was struck by the figurative echoes entailed in the solemn ceremonies connected to the signing of the Patti Lateranensi, the agreement of mutual support between Fascism and the Pope. Photographs of the event compose plate 78 of the Bilderatlas Mnemosyne as modern pathosformeln: re-enacting the ancient representations of sacrifices-related rituals, the alliance of religious and secular power sets in motion the archaic forces embodied in mythological tales containing anti-Semite superstitions.
Similarly, a few years later in Vienna, acting as disturbing pathsformeln caricatures recirculate unburied psychic ghosts. And the resurfacing of bewildering emotional images is not confined to the order of art: it affects the order of knowledge, penetrates in the realm of comprehension. Knowledge itself is moved, and questioned, by the circulation of emotional forces conveyed by images: Kris and Gombrich’s critical project somehow results in failure because current events violently deactivate their theoretical framework.
Probably following-up on that failure, Gombrich writes again on pictorial satire in 1989 and establishes that in comic images is active a form of regressive knowledge accepting the magical reliability of myths, a sort of suspension of disbelief in archaic truths. Of course, satire uses magical thought and the belief in supernatural as a metaphor: yet a deeply rooted one, conveying regressive certainties that somehow deny the process of secularisation of knowledge and appeal to the unchanging aspects of ‘human nature’, that is, the biologically conditioned mechanisms of cognition we analysed. The regressive nature of comic images is what bewildered Kris and Gombrich when they wanted to use them as a critical, progressive weapon. They had to acknowledge that the cognitive functioning of caricature pushed it toward a mythological dimension, and therefore in the field of emotional and unconscious responses. A few years later Adorno will state that, even when they intend to criticise power and social order, satire and caricature are essentially conservative, precisely because they rely on a physical, emotional persuasion rather than on rational arguments. This kind of medium, Mike Goode wrote, «literally sought to sway public opinion by convulsing people’s bodies with laughter». Putting aside the problem of Adorno’s questionable sense of humour, it is a fact that caricature’s truths are never rational: they are paradoxical and hyperbolical, instinctual and emotional.
8. Collective psychology
However, the emotional knowledge triggered by caricature can empower criticism of social and historical contexts and foster political organised reactions. Relying on regressive mechanisms, caricatures can reveal unaccounted truths about historical situations and challenge authorised representations of society. In the case of fascism, caricature reacted to the propaganda deforming its deformations, disfiguring and reconfiguring the mask of power. When triumphing fascism tried to immobilise society in a visual imagery of classical solidity and symmetry, the pathosformeln embodied in caricatures shook the monumentality of power through movement, mobility, and deformation. Caricature and its fleeting shapes lay siege to the fascist mind and materialise its worst nightmare, i.e., instability.
Anti-fascist caricature didn’t magically deform Mussolini’s body but contributed to orienting public emotions and building emotional communities ready to react against the regime. Caricature wasn’t the rationalist weapon described by Kris and Gombrich; still, for the cultural historian, it is a precious record of emotional symptoms, a map of the emotional flows active in a specific social and political context. As pathosformeln did, caricature testifies how society tried to challenge through motions the stiffening of cultures and powers. Concluding his considerations on Mnemosyne, Gombrich writes that the study of pathosformeln to Warburg «was not so much a problem of formal traditions as one of collective psychology». So it was the study of caricature to him.