These paintings are a joke: Can modern art be funny?

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Tom Lubbock goes in search of a sense of humour at a new exhibition in London

Laughing in A Foreign Language is the latest in a series of exhibitions staged over the last few years that deal with contemporary art and comedy, but it's the first to happen in Britain. It opens in London at the Hayward Gallery this morning, with work by the Chapman Brothers and David Shrigley among a cast of wits and pranksters.

As the gallery's director, Ralph Rugoff, explains: "Humour's expanding role in contemporary art is a result of many factors, but perhaps above all it represents a kind of allergic reaction to the legacies of Modernism."

The classic modern art of the 20th century now seems overbearingly high, heroic, serious, messianic. Contemporary art, by contrast, wants to play things in a lower, more knowing, more comical key.

But is the contrast so clear-cut? Was modern art averse to comedy? You might think it had good reason to be. People were always poking fun at it, and calling it a joke, and accusing the artists of playing a joke on the public. Modern artists had to be careful not to give too many hostages to this line of attack.

There was also the strange and not accidental likeness between modern art and traditional comic art. A lot of 20th-century art drew on the vocabulary of cartoon and caricature. But it didn't want to be equated with such low cultural activities. No surprise then if modern art should turn out to be a comedy wasteland. That's certainly how we're often taught about modern art. Its comic aspect is firmly repressed. What look like funny faces aren't really funny. They are pure formal experiments, or they're an act of violence, or they're deeply disturbing. Anything so they're on the right side of serious.

Yet the picture is more complicated. And the proof of the pudding, as it always is with comedy, is in the laughing. Is modern art funny? My answer is yes – simply because I can think of some famous 20th-century works that seem to be genuinely and wholeheartedly funny.

When we look for comedy in modern art, we may well look in the wrong places. We think of Picasso's pictorial wit, for instance, the way he plays and puns with bodies and body parts. It's brilliantly inventive, but it isn't really funny. Or we may think of Marcel Duchamp's conceptual wit, his wordplay, his incongruous combinations of objects and incongruous titles. Again, it's often very clever and graceful, but not really funny.

It's the same with another likely candidate, Surrealism. The imagery is bizarre and fantastical and disturbing, and the Surrealists all firmly believed in the importance of humour. But there isn't much humour in their art – is there anywhere a less humorous artist than Salvador Dali? As for the artists of the Weimar Republic, like Georg Grosz and Otto Dix, they are certainly savage and bitter in their satire, but a laugh they don't often raise.

You see that I'm pursuing a fairly light ideal of comedy. There are those who will say that real humour is subversive, or liberating, or deeply unsettling. There have always been those who seek a moral role for the humorous. But the comedy I've been looking for is fundamentally lighthearted – gay, gleeful, irresponsible, the sort most likely to make you laugh.

Now, when I say these works of 20th-century art make me laugh, I don't claim that they make me laugh violently, uproariously, helplessly, painfully. I don't think comic art works like that – at least, not when it's trying to do some other artistic work at the same time. But they can certainly provoke a smile and a "hmph" and that feeling of mental constraint-and-release which is the essence of laughter. Some of the jokes are gross, some of them are urbane, some are madcap, some are deadpan – and the fact that I find them funny may only indicate that I have an excessively rarefied or an excessively simple-minded sense of humour. But the case can only be made with particular examples, chosen by a particular person.

I have left out conceptual art, though some are very amusing, because they often have a verbal component and I wanted to stick to visual humour. I have left out video because nobody needs proof that films can be funny.

Here are six funny bits of 20th-century painting and sculpture. You can probably think of many more. But I hope they are enough to show that the rhetoric of modernism is not exclusively heroic, nor aggressive, nor extra-terrestrially sublime. Modern art: GSOH.

Giacomo Balla Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash (1912)

We're know the trick of multi-limb superimposition when we meet it in cartoon strips – somebody running at a hundred miles an hour, somebody doing umpteen things at once – and we know it's meant to be funny there. Futurism pretty well invented the trick Balla's dachshund is funny in the same way little dogs are in life – shown pelting along the pavement, rather faster than its legs can carry it, running itself off its feet in a blur of frantic activity. The artist's couldn't have picked a more comic example to demonstrate this new way of depicting motion. And see how the picture gives a dachshund-level view of the world, with the mistress – like the maid in Tom and Jerry – represented just by her feet.

Constantin Brancusi: Nancy Cunard (Sophisticated Young Lady) (1925-27)

The received idea is that modern art learned from caricature's repertoire of distortion and simplification – but then neutralised it, removing the humour from it, leaving only a language of pure formal variation. This Brancusi portrait of an American heiress is certainly very pure and formal, but the way it translates a human face into two sharp, smooth and near abstract shapes – an upward-swelling D-shape, the face, and perched tangentially on its crest an elegantly twisted blob of hair, like a cartoon cloud – also achieves an exquisite caricature.

Joan Miro Personage Throwing a Stone at a Bird (1926)

The Miro-cosmos, that swarming phantasmagoria of insects, sperms, eyes, paper decorations, dots, whiskers, amoebae, stars and blobs, is perhaps a doubtful case. Total anarchy, total weightlessness, are not hospitable to comedy: there must be some rules or norms to be broken, some gravity to be defied. But Miro's world lies on the border of humour, and sometimes crosses.

Pablo Picasso Bather Opening a Cabin (1928)

Picasso's body-distortions are often experienced as painful – think of the writhing and howling figures of Guernica. Sometimes they can be flowingly sensual and carnal, and sometimes bouncy and jolly, and sometimes they're full of wit, pictorial puns, usually obscene. There are times, though, when Picasso's remade figures are simply and clearly absurd. For all its inarticulate, cut-out, stuckness, it also has a sense of eager, focussed purpose to it. And that's where the joke is.

Jackson Pollock Stenographic Figure (1942)

Nobody would normally turn to the Abstract Expressionists for comedy. They're the apostles of heroic agony, serene spirituality, apocalyptic energy. Yet Jackson Pollock at least had one big funny moment. It's a work made some years before his famous spattering drip paintings. Loopy is the word for it. The vestigial presence of human faces helps to precipitate the feeling of deranged comedy – the "man" on the left with a gaping mouth, the "woman" on the right with a smile, and the space between them crackling with activity.

Jeff Koons Puppy (1992)

And finally, another dog. Jeff Koons's cod-philosophy – always delivered with a wide born-again grin – of salvation through kitsch, of giving the people the only kind of art that truly makes them happy, can be annoying. But Puppy is a triumph. It's hard to believe that a big public monument could be both funny and also work as a sculpture. Puppy does. Enlarged from a china figurine of a terrier (a chimneypiece ornament), constructed from masses of flowers, it brims over with pure and unqualified goodwill.

Laughing in a Foreign Language, Hayward Gallery, 25 January to 13 April (www.southbankcentre.co.uk)

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