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Roland Kanz (Hg.): Das Komische in der Kunst, Köln / Weimar / Wien: Böhlau 2007, V + 321 S., 179 s/w-Abb., ISBN 978-3-412-07206-3, EUR 29,90
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Rezension von:
Noël Schiller
School of Art and Art History, University of South Florida
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Dagmar Hirschfelder
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Noël Schiller: Rezension von: Roland Kanz (Hg.): Das Komische in der Kunst, Köln / Weimar / Wien: Böhlau 2007, in: sehepunkte 9 (2009), Nr. 7/8 [15.07.2009], URL:

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Roland Kanz (Hg.): Das Komische in der Kunst

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The performance and reception of comic genres of literature, the history of laughter as a social behavior, and the cultural codes that govern jesting are all topics that have drawn increasing attention during the last decade from literary and cultural historians, anthropologists, and psychologists. Indeed, as Roland Kanz rightly points out in his Foreword, who laughs in a society, on what occasions, and at what stimuli, are all historically- and culturally-contingent questions intimately linked with social norms, collective and individual identity formation, and power structures. It is thus surprising how few studies on laughter and the comic have emerged from the discipline of art history in recent years. As a result, Roland Kanz's volume makes a welcome contribution to the field.

The book's thirteen essays are far-ranging in their chronological scope and treatment of varied media: from classical sculpture, Renaissance paintings, drawings, and prints, to garden sculptures, and wonders of the collector's cabinet; to the art of caricature, the grotesque, nineteenth-century artists' photographic self-portraits; to the paintings, architecture and sculpture of the 20th century. Generally speaking, however, the emphasis in the volume falls on eighteenth- to twentieth-century art, and in light of the broad reach of the study, it is notable that none of the selections treat non-Western art.

Hans Ost's historiographical essay serves as the unofficial theoretical framework for the text as a whole. In assessing comic misunderstandings that have periodically arisen in art historical writing, the author attempts to chart a separation between involuntary and voluntary humor (see in this regard Guido Reuter's essay). This approach circumvents the two central problems in the study of comic art: first, the question of the artist's (or the patron's) intentions, and second, the issue of (how to reconstruct) reception and beholder response.

Given that the editor's Foreword is exceedingly brief, the book's essays might have been usefully grouped according to section headings that highlighted their methodological commonalities. Many of the essays seem to share the editor's desire to treat broad swathes of history and to make sweeping arguments about classes of objects or iconographic themes over time, rather than historically specific arguments about particular instances of comic intention or reception - Ekaterini Kepetzis's essay on the cultural politics of Daumier's caricatures during the July Monarchy is one notable exception to this tendency. Generally speaking, more attention could have been paid to historical precision in the terms used to describe the objects under consideration by various authors in this volume. A good place to start such an examination would have been the work of scholars such as Jan Bremmer, Herman Roodenburg, and Rudolf Dekker whose research on the cultural history of humor is conspicuously and surprisingly absent in the footnotes of essays dealing with early modern art, for example.

Missed opportunities for offering careful, up-to-date research abound in the volume. Hans Körner's essay on the history and use of putti as a Pathosformel is a case in point. He argues that viewers would have understood the children in Jan Steen's Soo d'oude songen, soo pypen de jonge [As the Old Sing, so Pipe the Young] not simply as didactic warnings that the young will imitate the behaviors of their elders, but rather, would have appreciated the amusing misbehaviors of the depicted children. This proposition seems oddly out of date given that Mariët Westermann's landmark book on Jan Steen was published in 1997 and is nowhere mentioned in the footnotes.

Antje von Graevenitz's essay proposes to examine the 'fragile iconography of laughter', but she does not really acknowledge the degree to which historical laughter was a highly variable social phenomenon. She fails to reconstruct for her reader the various physiognomic traits that artists and viewers in the past would have recognized and interpreted as laughter. Unfortunately, the author assumes that pictorial laughter is a stable iconographic motif. A closer examination of key images and art theoretical texts might have revealed that what is interpreted as a mere smile today was sometimes considered laughter during the Renaissance, for example. The question of how to depict laughter was the subject of much discussion from the early modern period to the Enlightenment and has been treated by many authors. Hence, von Graevenitz's leap from a passing reference to Alberti's Della pittura to a brief discussion of Lessing's Laokoon is jarring, to say the least. Yet this is only one of several problems in the essay, which for example, also naively suggests that Frans Hals depicted laughter and the consumption of wine in part due to his participation in the Haarlem chamber of rhetoric, the "Wijngaerdtranken" (the 'Wine Tendrils', dedicated to Dionysos). The author does not note that many artists such as Gerrit van Honthorst or Hendrick ter Brugghen depicted merry drinkers or Bacchus before Frans Hals and did so more frequently. Indeed, Hals was hardly unique among artists of his day for his participation in a chamber of rhetoric. In addition, there are typographical errors: for example, the well-known Hals scholar Seymour Slive is referred to as 'Simon' (239).

Andrea von Hülsen-Esch's essay "Das Komische in der Wunderkammer" and Jürgen Wiener's discussion of "Das Komische in der Gartenskulptur" work well together as a pair. Both contributions offer the reader explorations of objects that are rarely reproduced or are given short shrift in art historical literature. Many scholars in the last decade have examined the Wunderkammer as an epistemologically productive site of knowledge and as a locus for displaying social status. Von Hülsen-Esch makes a useful addition to this scholarship by aiming to explore what place the 'comic' as a category of objects may have occupied in the eighteenth century curiosity cabinet. Her essay investigates carved ivory and gem-encrusted figures of traditionally comic subjects such as dwarves, fools, and the commedia dell'arte figures that decorate small chests, goblets and other artifacts - objects which she argues would have fallen into the generic category of the comic or would have provoked laughter from beholders. The objects provoked wonder and pleasure, von Hülsen-Esch argues, because they revealed the artifice of their creators who transformed costly materials into grotesquely exaggerated figures or captured the movements, gestures, and facial expressions of well-known characters of comic theatre. Jürgen Wiener also treats dwarves and commedia dell'arte figures in his essay that traces the changing iconography and reception of garden sculpture. From the figures of low comedy such as the garden gnome to classicizing Antique gods with didactic content, Wiener highlights how the sculptures increasingly play with ambivalent iconography that is appropriate to their courtly settings, the gardens where masques and other entertainments were held. At the same time, Wiener's essay demonstrates the evolving nature of the comic in the Lebenswelt of the eighteenth century, a period during which the grotesque figures of the Baroque and the characters of improvisational theatre fell out of favor.

Considered as a whole, the essays which focus on a particular period, medium, or sharply defined problematic, are the most successful in revealing the variety of methodological perspectives that an examination of comic in visual arts can contribute to the study of art history more generally. Unfortunately, the collection as a whole is awkward - many of the essays make strange bedfellows and are only tangentially related to the volume's theme, however broadly this was conceived. Nevertheless, Das Komische in der Kunst demonstrates that, properly framed, problematizing comic intention can productively illuminate our understanding of objects as diverse as the contemporary art of Martin Kippenberger (as in Stephanie Lieb's essay) or nineteenth-century paintings by the Düsseldorf school (see Ekkehard Mai's contribution).

Noël Schiller