Seen any good jokes recently?

Humour in the visual arts usually means cartoons, comics and caricatures. But can we ever see the joke in pictures?
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Do paintings ever make you laugh? Can great art ever be funny? Perhaps you find the operation of the visual arts upon the mind to be too steady for anything so jolting as laughter? Or perhaps it seems odd for a painting to a pay-off, a punch-line - as if it were a cartoon.

Do paintings ever make you laugh? Can great art ever be funny? Perhaps you find the operation of the visual arts upon the mind to be too steady for anything so jolting as laughter? Or perhaps it seems odd for a painting to a pay-off, a punch-line - as if it were a cartoon.

Comic art: it doesn't sound quite serious, does it? If people talk about comic art, they generally mean cartoons, strips, caricatures, things which are certainly often funny. But painting doesn't seem to have a humour section. Comic novelist or playwright are more or less respectable professions. Even comic poet is just about OK. But comic painter - I don't know what it suggests, but it's something dodgy.

Which is unfortunate, because there have been some very comic paintings, and we should recognise this. With caricature, even "high" caricature like Daumier's, we do. Funny faces need no recommendation. But I'm thinking of another kind of comedy: actual jokes, pictures that have the compact, set-piece pointedness of jokes. They're a more elusive category.

Now there are plenty of images with ostensibly comic business in them. The subjects are famous: pranks, roguishness, mishaps, sauce, randiness, voyeurism, intrigue, vanity, drunkenness, gluttony, ugliness, stupidity. Some of these things we still find funny. But the problem is, we don't usually find the pictures about them funny.

Are there any laughs in Breughel? Surely there were once. But among the many things people love this painter for, comedy doesn't much figure. Of course some of his humour won't do now: for example, a party of blind men falling one after another into a ditch. And one may want to deny there is any humour there at all.

A standard Breughel book says about The Parable of the Blind: "We are all likely to read this painting as the unsurpassed depiction of a tragic event, and we cannot conceivably be wrong about this." Not conceivably? Can we be so sure, when even those Breughel images which are clearly (and unobjectionably) comical don't really take us that way? The loss of comedy, the fact that pictures which amused their contemporaries don't amuse us now, is one of the great losses of art history. Art historians spend much time recovering the forgotten symbolism of pictures. Forgotten laughs they tend to leave alone. I suppose the cause feels too hopeless.

But all isn't lost. What you might call pictorial wit has a better record of survival. It can still strike. Pictorial wit takes all forms - like the complex games of looking in Velazquez' Las Meninas or Caravaggio's St Matthew perched on a stool that teeters perilously out the front of the picture, or Mantegna's decapitated Holofernes, represented solely by the sole of his foot, or the numerous ways Degas' figures are overlapped and suddenly cut-off. These things can grab us - but they don't really tickle us. Funny they're not quite. And for a proper joke-picture I think you need both - pictorial wit with some human comic potential too. I have some examples, each one a kind of stand-up comedy. Where possible, I'll be explaining them to death.

Antonio del Pollaiuolo's Apollo and Daphne, for instance, in the National Gallery - well, it always seems to me very funny. It's the overwhelming suddenness of it. The nymph metamorphoses into a laurel, but unlike other images of the subject, there's no sense of gradual, sinuous, organic transformation. No. Her arms just go "tree" with a flourish like a conjurer's bouquet. Her gesture of surprise becomes her big surprise, as two enormous blocks of foliage, each as large as her, coming shooting out of her shoulders. And then they practically fill the whole top half of the image, so in effect (pictorially) immobilising her. You need the feeling that just before she was fleeing at speed. Then woomp! Tree. And Apollo hits her like a lamp-post.

Was it meant to be funny? Would anyone have smiled in 1470 when it was painted? Obviously one can make a mistake. Art is full of marvels, miracles and martyrdoms which often look ridiculous and weren't meant to - though they were probably meant to look extraordinary, so the impulse to laugh is only a slight wrong turning. And the Pollaiuolo picture, at least, has the plausible ingredients of a pictorial joke: a matter of motion and stillness.

Consider Henry Raeburn's "The Skater" ( The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch), painted about 300 years later, in National Gallery of Scotland. Now this is indisputably funny. The joke depends on a convention: that a figure in a portrait should present themselves to the viewer sitting or standing still. And the subject here of course is not still. He presents his profile, but he is skimming past at speed. (See how that prim profile makes a pointing arrowhead). And then - another surprise in portraiture - he's standing precariously on one leg.

But that's not the full gag. For in another sense, this vicar is indeed still. In relation to the ground he moves, but as he passes us he is holding himself in a consciously graceful and static attitude, stressed by the sharp black silhouette of his clerical garb. What's more - and this is the joke's coup de grâce - he only maintains his pose and his poise because he's built up such a good speed. This is high, deep comedy: a wonderful putting together of showy elegance and exertion, composure and risky skill.

Overreading? Yes, I could be wrong, conceivably. In this case, I feel not. But what about Raeburn's contemporary, George Stubbs. He's a very great genius, but it's very hard to catch his tone. How should we combine his magnificent formal constructions with their paddock subject matter? Is Stubbs always quite serious? Isn't it occasionally a kind of mock epic?

Sometimes it is more like serene farce - as in the horse portrait, Dungannon, Painted in a Paddock with a Sheep (in the Halifax Collection). What a fantastic picture. And the disparity-joke doesn't take much analysing. Everything about the set-up says classical formality. There's the frieze-like line-up, the dignified statuesque profile poses, the announcement of symmetrical equilibrium - except that, obviously, just at that point, comes the fatal let-down. The smart thoroughbred is "balanced" by a small facing sheep. I suppose you would almost keep the comedy just by singling out this excessively dignified portrayal of a sheep. But that would be a pity, because it would deprive the joke of its sympathetic animal truth: the odd fact that nervous thoroughbreds do sometimes have a companion sheep or goat, and it keeps them calm, it balances them.

One last turn, and here I think no one will deny the joke: Georges De La Tour's The Fortune Teller, painted in about 1630, in the Metropolitan Museum, New York. It's not just a joke, it's a show. It's subject is comic, naturally, a young fop being robbed blind while his fortune's told. There's a fine comedy of immobility, in the way he is striking his fancy pose, while the female thieves around him are also standing as still, moving as imperceptibly, as possible, with the faint suggestion that he's further immobilised by social/sexual fastidiousness in the proximity of all these strange women. And then there's the dramatic eyes-right.

The main pickpocket faces straight at the viewer, but she shoots a surreptitious sidelong glance hard to her right. It's a startling breach of face-depicting conventions. And it focuses the whole story. She must keep her face front. That's the innocent position. The boy can sense her presence and must not notice that she's interested in him or his valuables. If he turns suddenly, she'll still be facing front. She monitors him only with her eyes. But the artist has arranged it that on the picture surface her glance seems to meet his glance - in which perhaps some suspicion is just beginning to dawn. The scene freezes on the brink of discovery. It forces the viewer's eye - darting left and right observing everything - into complicity with the crime. It doesn't miss a trick. It makes even the act of seeing part of the joke.

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