Why artists sometimes use exaggerated characters and caricatures to explore difficult themes

Caricature is not just something to depict celebrities in cartoons and holiday goers on their trips to local tourist hot spots. The history of the use of exaggeration and caricature in art is actually a …


Caricature is not just something to depict celebrities in cartoons and holiday goers on their trips to local tourist hot spots. The history of the use of exaggeration and caricature in art is actually a long, complex tale and is closely tied to satire, irony, subversion and the grotesque, all of which have often been used for social and political commentary throughout history. 

Artists and illustrators continue to use exaggeration and caricatures to explore difficult themes, influence an idea or suggest something deeper than can be illustrated by the artistic materials alone. 

The history of caricature 

Caricature and exaggeration have been used for centuries and can even be traced back to the paintings and drawings of Leonardo da Vinci and his portraits of various faces. Later on, in the 18th and 19th centuries, caricature developed from the strangely deformed portraits of da Vinci to something much more interesting. 

The later caricatures were cruder and more obvious than their Renaissance predecessors and were often used to express uncultured aspects such as likening individuals to animals and exaggerating bodily functions and humor. In the 1830s, Honore Daumier applied the form of caricature to political commentary by depicting King Louis Philippe as a grotesque pear in order to poke fun at his ignorance. 

From then on, caricature was frequently applied to rulers and other political figures in order to make a social or political commentary purely through design alone. In fact, caricature was used so frequently that it became tied to the foundations of modern democracy and anti-colonial movements. 

In fact, we are all familiar with caricature today from political cartoons. Although the figures in political cartoons are often exaggerated almost to the point of non-recognition, we are still able to discern who the figure is and can even oftentimes tell the political leaning of the caricaturist based on the depiction of the political figure. 

Other uses of caricature

Caricature and exaggeration are not just important for political commentary, however. Exaggeration can be used to suggest a particular point or idea or to add nuance to an argument. Exaggeration can also be used to depict emotion and the internal self, as caricatures often depict what is internally felt in an exaggerated sense. 

Exaggeration in practice

It can be difficult to fully understand how caricature and exaggeration are used in practice without something to use as a frame of reference. Below are two artists who are successfully using exaggeration to push a point, express an emotion or create a more nuanced piece of work. 

Jordan Wolfson 

An artist whose work provides a great example of this idea in practice is Jordan Wolfson. Wolfson’s work has been shown in The Broad, the Kuntsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, the Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst, the Serpentine Gallery, and many more museums. His work often uses caricature and exaggeration to explore themes of violence, misogyny, racism and bigotry in popular culture. 

Wolfson uses exaggeration in a number of different ways. For example, in his piece (Female Figure) 2014, Wolfson uses the form of an elegant, white, blonde woman to dig deeper into popular culture’s obsession with female objectification, misogyny and violence. The beautiful figure of the woman is disfigured by a terrifying grey witch mask and, upon closer observation, she has angry eyes, sharp teeth and is covered in dirt. 

The feminine form has been exaggerated here (blonde and thin with thigh-high, white stiletto boots) to comment on the ideal form of a woman and this is further complicated by the terrifying grotesque elements and suggestions of violence. The exaggeration serves to better prove Wolfson’s point. 

Salvatore of Lucan 

Salvatore of Lucan uses exaggeration, albeit in a very different way from Wolfson. Rather than using caricature or exaggeration to criticize a particular idea or aspect of society or culture, Salvatore uses exaggeration to describe a particular mood or mental state. 

His prize-winning work Me Ma Healing Me, 2020 depicts him, his mother and his cat all in somewhat exaggerated and abstract forms. His face is twisted in pain and anguish while his mother’s face is a mask of calm and concentration, and the cat stares straight at us, the viewers. The exaggeration displayed in this painting – and other works by Salvatore – utilizes abstract caricature as a way to display internal emotions. 

These are just two of many contemporary artists who are using elements of caricature and exaggeration in unique, complex and thoughtful ways. One of the best things about caricature is that it is easy to spot and is also essentially taking the hand of the viewer and leading them towards a particular conclusion. 

This makes exaggerated art more accessible, fun and interesting for all art goers, not just well-trained art enthusiasts and students. The next time you see a piece of art with exaggerated aspects, sit back and think to yourself ‘what are they trying to tell me’? 

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