"A sense of humour is a serious business," wrote British novelist Martin Amis (The War against ClichÃ©: Essays and Reviews 1971-2000). "And it isn't funny, not having one. Watch the humourless closely: they are handicapped in the head, or mentally 'challenged', as Americans say (euphemism itself being a denial of humour)€¦ they have no idea what is going on and can't make sense of anything at all."
While art historian Donald Kuspit feels "humour restores honesty€¦ it has the capacity for affectionate feeling"; AndrÃ© Breton (1896-1966), the principal theorist of the Surrealist movement, considered humour to be "a superior revolt of the mind, and 'the mortal enemy of sentimentality."
In her book titled Art and Laughter, Sheri Klein writes that while the art world may be thought of as serious business, and art galleries and museums are serious places for art viewing, one could find artists throughout the ages who qualified as comics. "I truly believe that art can be powerful, meaningful and funny at the same time, and that artists who can make us laugh have a special gift to disrupt our thinking."
Visual artists often come across as serious and humourless beings, but have seldom missed an opportunity to incorporate wit, satire, irony, and intellectual playfulness in their works. Art history is replete with artists who are well known for their abilities to be humorous, and many art movements had interesting artworks which inspired laughter, smiles, grins or chuckles.
About 100 years ago, the French artist Marcel Duchamp (1887 - 1968) created L.H.O.O.Q (1919) by taking a postcard reproduction of Mona Lisa and adding a moustache to it. Read aloud in French, the inscription L.H.O.O.Q. is 'elle a chaud au cul', or 'she has a hot ass'! In another work, Rrose SÃ©lavy, 1920, he slyly subverted societal conventions and posed himself as a pretty woman for a series of photographs taken by the famous photographer Man Ray.
Pablo Picasso, RenÃ© Magritte, Salvador Dali, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and many other famous artists were known for making humorous or witty statements through their artwork. Life was really hard on Vincent van Gogh, and in 1887 he wrote to his sister: "I for one need above all just to have a good laugh." A year earlier, he had painted Head of a Skeleton with a Burning Cigarette, 1886, a rather unusual work considering his general disposition.
Moles and fangs
Indian artists both past and present have not lacked in humour. Many of Bhupen Khakhar's images were tinged with wit, comicality and stinging sarcasm. Atul Dodiya, who was inspired by Khakhar's art and life, has, over decades, produced several series of serious images incorporating aspects of Indian history, cinema, and autobiography; he has often laced them with playful humour and perceptive mockery.
Dodiya, also a great fan of Duchamp, has marvelled on how the French artist could audaciously install a urinal as a sculpture in an art exhibition, or fix a bicycle wheel on a stool and call it a work of art. "He drew a moustache on a Mona Lisa reproduction. At the same time, he was raising a number of important questions about formal beauty, about the history of art and how we see art."
Dodiya once found a catalogue which had painted portraits of many artists. Looking at the pictures, he launched a prank like a school kid - affixing a Hitler-cut moustache on one picture, dark glasses for another, horns for the third one, and bindis for the next one.
Goaties, moles, fangs and patches of different shapes and sizes found their way to adorn the faces of other hapless artists. The exercise continued and before long, the entire book had been 'vandalised'. Even senior artists like M F Husain, Tyeb Mehta, S H Raza, K G Subramanyan, Jogen Chowdhury, Jehangir Sabavala and Arpita Singh were not spared. When completed, the set of images was collectively called Anarkali and the 72 Idiots.
Dodiya's work is among those featured prominently in an exhibition titled 'Sub Plots: Laughing in the Vernacular', currently on at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai (on till January 14). The show, curated by Bengaluru-based academic Meena Vari and organised by Sakshi Gallery, intends to "combat prejudices that humour is simplistic, non-academic or non-serious. It brings together works by 24 artists that engage at different levels - questioning or disrupting the status quo, injecting absurdities, highlighting tensions and sometimes ridiculing the 'now'. The works derail the dominant narrative and challenge the recognised perception of the everyday."
The country got its independence seven decades ago, but still, the colonial hangover persists. Siddhartha Kararwal's mammoth sculptural installation Still Chewing,(fibreglass and silicon rubber on fabric) is a take on this aspect and fits well into the feel and resolve of the show. Suspended precariously from the high ceiling of the imposing building, it reveals a white, life-size statue of Queen Victoria dangling at the edge of a seemingly sticky substance. "The work reflects on how India's colonial history comes across as a bad joke sometimes," says Siddhartha. "We can try to analyse, ignore, embrace, and escape in as many ways as we can, but the colonial hangover comes back and clings to us like a chewing gum, like a leech."
Among other engaging works on show are paintings by Surendran Nair, which have intriguing titles like The peacock that often bursts into tears, besides throwing a tantrum or two every now and then (Elysium: Cuckoonebulopolis); Hyderabad-based C K Rajan's 'Psychopathic Killer Fan', which unexpectedly comes very close to the visitor's face and neck, inducing both fear and amusement at the same time; and N S Harsha's 'Tamasha' featuring a troop of long-tailed langurs with raised fingers.
Hopefully, the New Year ushers in more exhibitions and artworks which can bring a sweet smile, if not an aggressive laughter, on the viewer's face. As Sheri Klein points out, humour could be a good barometer to measure the times we live in.