The sense of humour is a sign of intelligence. It is the art of those who model what they see with an elegant satire to make us reflect on deep concepts and existential themes, offering an original and less rigid view of the reality.
Using the sense of humour in a sophisticated and creative way is certainly an art, and the combination of art and humour makes our life more fun and enjoyable.
It all started with Marcel Duchamp and Piero Manzoni, illustrious forerunners of ironic thought and revolutionary ideas that were inspirational for the successive generations of contemporary artists.
Initiator of Dadaism, a leading figure in Surrealism and a precursor of Conceptual Art, Marcel Duchamp (France, 1887 – 1968) challenged social conventions and changed the concept of art by raising objects of common use to real artworks. His irreverent provocations have influenced the avant-garde art and anticipated many artistic movements of the second post-war period.
“Bicycle Wheel”, the first ready-made, dates back to 1913 and its destiny is to change the course of the history of art forever. The decontextualization of common elements provokes an alienating effect and a conceptual distortion: the bicycle wheel has lost its function and the stool on which it is placed is unusable.
The most famous intervention will remain “Fountain” (1917), a male urinal complete with the artist’s signature, the scandalous work caused a great sensation at the time, including in the title all the irony of the genius of the last century.
Marcel Duchamp, “Fountain”, 1917
As for provocations, after the famous urinal there is “Artist’s shit” (1961) by Piero Manzoni (Soncino 1933 – Milan 1963) which is the most classic example of an artistic scandal, a work that had even caused a parliamentary question.
Besides the pure “thematic” coincidence, the two artworks cited are a cry of protest, a symptom of a strong reaction against the rules and the prevailing system of the time.
Art, which until then had been a carrier of meanings but mainly decorative and with a strong aesthetic function, now no longer worries about satisfying the sight but of conveying concepts and ideas, even of contestation.
Manzoni redefines the very boundaries of the work of art with an absolutely innovative creative freedom for the time, establishing itself as one of the protagonists of the international avant-garde and as one of the precursors of Conceptual Art. It is part of the informal nuclear movement from 1957 to 1959 and founded the Azimuth magazine with Enrico Castellani (1959-60), with which he also opened the Azimut gallery in Milan.
In the “Artist’s Shit” (“Merda d’artista”), in addition to the irony of the label that takes up the wording of any canned food, the conceptual provocation continues in the price given to the artwork, equivalent to that of gold per gram: in this way Manzoni associates two materials that are totally antithetical to each other but both full of meanings.
The controversy also refers to the art market and the arbitrary aesthetic value given to what is considered a work of art and also addresses the question between content and form.
Same as this work, his other works presuppose the concealment of the work of art, as in the case of the “Lines” (“Linee”), made between 1959 and 1961, which consists of a line drawn on a sheet of paper and its existence and length is certified only by the external label of the cylinder that contains it.
Always characterized by a strong irony and position, his work has embraced multiple forms of art: he took the challenge of happening and performance when he branded hard-boiled eggs to offer to the viewers with his fingerprints in “Consumption of dynamic art by the art-devouring public”.
He autographed the bodies of the models – “Living Sculptures” (1961) – bearing a regular certificate and delivery note, anticipating body art and also creating the largest sculpture in the world – an unbeatable primacy – placing a sort of base / pedestal with a reverse writing that reads: “Socle du monde” (“Base of the world”) (1961).
Today the “Achrome”, series begun in 1957, are in fact his most quoted works. With his monochromes Manzoni exceeds painting and limits his personal intervention: the kaolin-soaked cloth is left to dry letting the material modify itself over time.
The revolutionary significance of a genius, who died early, today is easy to guess, but in the 1950s and 1960s it was perhaps too early to receive the recognition he was due.
Hauser & Wirth dedicated a retrospective to his work – “Piero Manzoni: Lines” – running until 26 July in the New York office where 70 “Achrome” and 12 “Lines” are on display.
Piero Manzoni, “Merda d’artista”, 1961
Can of tin, printed paper, human faeces or chalk ?
Equally provocative and gifted with sense of humour is Salvador Dalì (Spain 1904 – 1989), the greatest exponent of Surrealism, famous also for the eccentric and bizarre personality that has poured into dreamlike works populated by deformed and disturbing animals and objects, fruit of the subconscious of the artist.
His early works are influenced by Cubism, Futurism and De Chirico’s works, to which he will add strong references to Freudian psychoanalysis. Eclectic and ingenious, Dalì has expressed himself in various fields, including cinema, photography and sculpture.
“The persistence of memory” (1931) is the surrealist artwork of excellence, the one with the presence of the famous soft clocks investigates and questions the claim to measure time in an objective and absolute way.
With the director Luis Buñuel he creates avant-garde short films such as “An Andalusian Dog” (1927), before a series of excellent cinematographic and theatrical collaborations: he will collaborate with Alfred Hitchock, Luchino Visconti and Walt Disney.
His unconventional style, his passion for luxury and excess have made him a worldwide celebrity, between unforgettable parties and wild cats kept as pets.
His extravagance has often been immortalized by Man Ray, but the lightness and irony of the Spanish genius are summarized in a photograph taken by Philippe Halsman in 1948: “Dalì Atomicus” – title referring to the nuclear explosion in Hiroshima and Nagasaki of 1945 – it is a real explosion that immortalizes flying cats, buckets of water and the artist suspended in mid-air in his intent of painting.
At the Grimaldi Forum in Montecarlo, an exhibition is underway that can be visited until September 8th, which brings together about 100 works covering the whole of his artistic career, from 1910 to 1983.
Philippe Halsman, “Dalì Atomicus”, 1948
Silver gelatine print
The real trend of humour in the art world develops later with the Pop Art movement, born in England and the United States between the end of 1950 and the beginning of 1960. The concept of art itself is renewed, making it lighter and more ironic thanks to the appearance of flat and lively colours, to the reference to icons of cinema and comics. Pop Art — incisive and immediate — best expresses the collective imagination and the American society of the time, borrowing the language of mass media and advertising.
The cue therefore comes from everyday life and consequently even mass-market mass-produced products become true icons.
Impossible not to think of Campbell Soup cans or Coca Cola bottles reproduced in serigraphs by Andy Warhol (USA 1928 – 1987), according to which art is also consumed like any other product.
Thus reproducibility and obsessive repetition characterize his works which, like mass products – associated with consumerism – reflect American society. A leading exponent of Pop Art and an eccentric personality, Warhol has also made a name for himself for his unconventional lifestyle.
Andy Warhol, “Campbell’s Soup II“, 1969
Serigraphy on paper
The theme of reproducibility of the work of art was also at the centre of the research of Roy Lichtenstein (USA 1923 – 1997), another great exponent of the movement: the source of inspiration – the comics – also translates into an interest in the mechanical processes. Lichtenstein implements the inverse process in his works, that is, starting from a copy par excellence (a printed page) he creates an original, revolutionizing the expressive language of the era. During his career, Lichtenstein has explored various themes, some of which are typically American: from the Far West to the artistic expressions of Indians, from the economic boom to oriental landscapes.
Roy Lichtenstein, “In the car“, 1963
Oil on canvas
Another great Pop Art performer is Tom Wesselmann (USA 1931 – 2004), famous for his “Great American Nudes”. His stylized and seductive female figures introduce eroticism into movement, at a time when the nude of a woman begins to become an advertising product that no longer makes a stir.
In 1970, Wesselmann exhibited “Bedroom Tit Box”, a box that brought together painted wooden objects. What is striking is the presence of a breast between an ashtray and a bottle of perfume: starting from this still life the artist will begin to depict details of female bodies.
In an interview he said: “Painting, sex and humour are the most important things in my life”.
Tom Wesselmann, “Smoker #3 (Mouth #17)”, 1968
Oil on canvas
Jeff Koons – eccentric personality and “enfant terrible” of contemporary art – has often been talked about for his controversial choices.
His earliest works date back to the late 1970s but it was in 1980 that Jeff Koons made his debut in the art world: he exhibited at the New Museum the installation “The New” in which he staged some vacuum cleaners, products of consumer goods in which the influence of Andy Warhol is very evident.
The theme of consumerism and the fulfilment of the senses also include the sexual sphere and his pornographic sculptures certainly require a great open-mindedness and a strong sense of humour, even if only to conceive the message.
Some of these are currently on display at the Jumex Museum in Mexico City until September 29th in the review curated by Massimiliano Gioni “Apariencia Desnuda”, and are combined with Duchamp’s works in an unpublished exhibition that highlights the conceptual affinities between the two art giants. They questioned the function of the objects and in both of them there is often a strong eroticism, also found in everyday objects: an evident theme in the voyeuristic work “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, The Large Glass” (1915 – 23) by Duchamp, who considered that desire is a source of creativity, as witnessed also by his alter ego Rrose Sélavy. Recurrent eroticism also in the works of Koons, who caused scandal with the 1991 series “Made in Heaven” created with his wife and porn star Ilona Staller.
It is the first major anthological exhibition presented in South America for both artists and the 80 works on display clarify the points of contact both in the challenge to conventions and in the distortion of the function of common objects.
Jeff Koons is the artist par excellence who has taken over and transformed the enchantment and childhood desire for games into a fetish for adults that reflects the extreme individuality of modern society hidden behind a trivial toy.
He is probably still celebrating the very recent record at auction that he – again – crowned the highest paid living artist in the world. “Rabbit“, a stainless steel sculpture from 1986 was sold last May for $ 91.1 million at a Christie’s auction in New York.
Jeff Koons, “Balloon Dog (Orange)“, 1994-2000
Mirror polished stainless steel with transparent color coating
Damien Hirst (Bristol 1965), one of the founders of Frieze, is another “enfant terrible” of contemporary art: one of his goals is to amaze and shock the viewers and the public.
Hirst no longer seeks the manual skill of the author of the work of art but tries to convey ideas and create almost a brand, as Andy Warhol had done before him. He takes up the use of everyday objects and from Duchamp the ready-made, but he models and transforms them by transposing them onto living beings.
The leader of the Young British Artists has always focused on the reflections around the theme of death and has been especially noted for the works that have seen animal protagonists in formaldehyde or for the famous diamond-covered skull “For the love of God”, perfect combination of irony and macabre, object of desire and repulsion.
The exorcism of death through medicine took shape in works that reproduce mirrors of medicine with the pills on display as if they were precious stones, signifying an almost sacred admiration for remedies against death but also a reflection on today’s addictions.
Among these, smoking has a prominent place, also due to its close link with death, and it is no coincidence that Hirst has dedicated more than one work to it: among these “Party time” (1995) is a giant ashtray filled with cigarette butts and empty packages, almost a pool to throw yourself into.
Damien Hirst, “Lullaby Summer”, dettaglio, 2002
Glass, stainless steel, aluminium, nickel, bismuth and cast resin, coloured plaster and painted pills with dry transfers
On the close symbiosis between art and life, Yayoi Kusama (Japan 1929) has always moved, having lived voluntarily in a mental asylum in Tokyo for about 40 years.
Her works move between madness, fun and genius, thanks to their great power of interaction with the viewer.
She suffered from hallucinations from a young age, visions she transposed into her works, giving the viewers her vision of the world, full of suggestions. Not only obsessively repeated pumpkins and polka dots but also immersive installations such as the “Infinity Mirrors rooms” – rooms covered with mirrors that play with the thousand cross-references between pumpkins, polka dots and the reflected image of the viewers.
Obsessively repeated, the polka dots cover the furnishings of entire rooms or go to decorate tentacles sprouting from the floor and ceiling in installations that everyone likes.
Yayoi Kusama, “Infinity Mirrored Room – All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins”, 2016
Wood, mirrors, plastic, acrylic and leds
Another artist who engages us in a fun way playing with the sense of orientation is Carsten Höller (Brussels 1961), an artist who often creates playful works whose purpose is to activate all 5 senses in the viewers, triggering adrenaline and emotions linked to games. childhood, as in the case of slides.
The artist plays with the disorientation and explores the contradictions within us, as in the case of the work “Upside Down Mushroom” at the Fondazione Prada in Milan, which implements a reversal of reality.
Carsten Höller, “Upside Down Mushroom Room”, 2000
Fondazione Prada, Milano
Even Paul McCarthy (USA 1945) plays with the senses and with the subconscious of the viewer with provocative, disturbing, politically committed works, which aim at a critique of consumerism and to lay bare our fears and neuroses, unmasking the deceptions that lie behind the promise of the American dream.
Known for his vast and varied production that includes performance, photography, sculpture, film, multimedia installations, drawing and painting; at the beginning of his artistic career he tries to break the limits of painting by using unusual “materials” such as body fluids and food.
McCarthy appropriates icons of popular and childhood culture such as gnomes, Heidi, Santa Claus, Barbie reformulating them in a violent version and playing with the viewer’s subconscious.
Brutal, explicit and often repetitive images cause sensory overload by causing feelings of discomfort and disgust: the artist overcomes any taboo and breaks all social rules.
From the early 1980s McCarthy developed a series of collaborations with Mike Kelley, another artist linked to the counterculture: the synergy between the two leads to the creation of “Heidi”, a 1992 video that depicts the disturbing implications of the famous children’s story.
Paul McCarthy, “White Snow” Dwarf, Bashful”, 2016
Silicone, fiberglass, steel
Like McCarthy, Mike Kelley (Detroit 1954 – Los Angeles 2012) has always been interested in American mass culture, examining it thoroughly to reveal hidden contradictions.
He explored various themes such as the relationships between different social classes, sexuality, religion, repressed memories and politics, making an incisive critique and a great deal of self-deprecating humour to these topics.
Especially known for his work with objects that evoke memories related to childhood and adolescence, such as stuffed toys, dolls and school photographs, throughout his career he has explored any type of medium: drawing, sculpture, music, video, shows, photography and painting.
In the project “Educational Complex” (1995) the artist analyses adolescent traumas and criticizes the rigid rules of society and the educational impositions to which we are forced to submit.
Among his best-known works “Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites” (1991-99), very colourful stuffed toys sewn together to form rainbow sculptures that at first glance evoke the magic of childhood.
Mike Kelley, “Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites“, 1991-1999
Mixed media installation: stuffed animals sewn over wooden and wire mesh frames with styrofoam packing material, fiberglass, car lacquer, metal hardware, nylon rope, pulleys
Claes Oldenburg (Stockholm 1929) focused on the theme of consumerism and today’s eating habits and is famous throughout the world for monumental and amusing works that reflect a typically American imagery: from the shuttlecock for badminton to bowling pins, from the giant hamburger to the huge ice cream cone that fell on a skyscraper in Cologne.
His works are often strongly linked to the territory where the work is placed, as evidenced by “Ago, filo e nodo” (2000) created in collaboration with Coosje van Bruggen in Piazzale Cadorna in Milan, a tribute to the world of fashion and a clear reference to the underground lines in the colours used for the thread.
Claes Oldenburg, “Dropped Cone”, Neumarkt Galerie Colonia, Germania, 2001
Stainless and galvanized steels, fibre reinforced plastic, balsa wood, painted with polyester gel coating
“The shades of the art rainbow are endless: choose your favorite!”