Daumier’s 1834 “Le Ventre Legislatif” (The Legislative Belly), for example, is a perfect example of how his talent as a draftman and satirist dovetail. The scene is a view of France’s Chamber of Deputies, with the various legislative characters sitting along a multitiered dais. The scene is so immediate and perfectly modern that the viewer will start at its familiarity and snort at the humor.
“All those guys and they are all physical types,” Rathbone says with a laugh. “You see it, and you think that Daumier could go up to Capitol Hill today and do some pretty funny work.”
“Le Ventre Legislatif” is just one example of how Daumier’s quick eye, acerbic wit and tender humor is communicated through the scenes he created.
Oliphant, as Daumier’s posthumous protege, approaches politics and caricatures similarly.
“[Oliphant] can make fun of anybody,” Rathbone says. “It doesn’t matter which side of politics you’re on or what level of society, he can find the humor.”
On the same wall as “Le Ventre Legislatif” is Oliphant’s 2000 lithograph “Tweedledum and Tweedledee.” The picture depicts then-presidential contenders Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush as the “Alice in Wonderland” namesakes.
“[Caricature] exaggerates the predominant features of an individual,” Rathbone explains. “A caricaturist picks certain features to make dominant to convey this — something that is kind of penetrating.”
Perhaps the highlight of this installation is Oliphant’s “Homage to Daumier” (2000), which he personally donated to the Phillips. It depicts the artist in front of the largest Daumier painting in the museum, “The Uprising” (1860).
In Oliphant’s version, he has put himself in front of the hanging painting. He is leaning into the painting but staring out to the viewer wide-eyed and gobsmacked. “Homage to Daumier” acknowledges the older artist as Oliphant’s mentor and his great inspiration.
“Political Wits, 100 Years Apart: Daumier and Oliphant at the Phillips” is on exhibit through Jan. 20 at The Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW.