Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Planet of the Monkey-Men, 1827

by Sam Simian

Sam Simian is the former proprietor of Darwin's Body Shop in the former Leopoldville in the former Belgian Congo ("Ubangi, We Fixy") in  the current Africa. Now, having made his fortune in used Mongolian auto parts, he is master of all that he surveys from his eponymous hilltop castle overlooking California's central coast.

I'm not happy about all that I survey. At the moment, I'm surveying Monkey-ana, or Men in Miniature.

It's a suite of twenty-four mordantly satiric caricatures by Thomas Landseer (1795-1880), brother of Edwin Landseer (1802-1873), the famed painter of horses, dogs, and stags, and captioned with quotations from Shakespeare, Pope, etc.  It is one of the few works engraved by Landseer after his own designs, was originally issued in six parts, each with four etchings, bound in pictorial wrappers reiterating the engraved design of the title-page, on chamois-colored paper, and  originally published in 1827. Its engravings depict human men as members of my family.

How do you spell condescending? Remove the mask and all humans are monkeys? I don't think so. Remove the mask and all humans are even more human than you thought, and it ain't pretty. Thank Hanuman, the Monkey God, for masks (though the last syllable of his name is a scandal).

You wanna parody the vices of men, fine by me; it's more fun than a barrel of humans with pistols and a bottle of Jack Daniels and less dangerous. I resent, however, the choice of my brethren as somehow, somewhere below humanity on the tree of life yet ripe for close comparison. From my branch the view is the other way around. If Darwin was right and men are descended from monkeys, then it's time for us monkeys to do the right thing, travel back in time, commit mass suicide, and stop evolution in its tracks. You think we wanted our legacy to be genetic ancestors of Glenn Beck?

In 1971 I dropped LSD. Ten hours later, as it wore off, it seemed to slowly drain from my head, descend my torso, run down my legs and exit my big toes into a pool on the floor. Twelve hours after that I saw an  aging macaque in Pucci and pearls walking a Pomeranian on Beverly Drive in Beverly Hills. I wasn't sure whether the leash was attached to the dog or the dowager and who was taking who for a walk. It did my heart good, though, to see a monkey mocking a denizen of The Bistro, the dearly defunct hangout for Hollywood primates past their prime.

Suffice it to say, if you're going to depict a kangaroo court kindly depict kangaroos.

I've just about had it in general with anthropormorphic literature and art, and I'm not alone. Some of my best friends are butterflies and they're still pissed-off at Grandville for what he did to them in Les Papillons Métamorphoses Terrestres de Peuples de l'Airs. A pear I know takes Charles Philipon's caricature of his great-great-great-great grandfather as Louis-Philippe personally. Whatever you do, don't bring up Varin's L'Empire des Légumes to an eggplant. Purple with rage is all I can say.

If you want to satirize a despot don't look to monkeys for inspiration.  King Kong was a gentle giant who loved blonds and whose only political gripe was with NYC authorities for approving the Empire State Building without provision of a single piton or Alpine cock ring to give him a leg up. The rest we know.

How 'bout Mighty Joe Young? You croon Beautiful Dreamer to the big guy and what does he do? He gets all goofy and smiley, lies down and plays with flowers. You sing Beautiful Dreamer to a mafia gorilla and you're dead meat - no offense to gorillas intended.

Thomas Landseer "became one of the most gifted and innovative engravers of his generation, being particularly adept in the use of textural etching. Much of his career was taken up with reproducing the works of his brother, Edwin...he subsequently made prints after all of his brother's most famous works...In all, he made more than 125 engravings after his brother's paintings. He also produced original etchings, including the book Monkey-ana, or Men in Miniature...At the Royal Academy he exhibited both engravings and original works of art, but it was not until 1868 that he was finally honoured by being elected ARA. In 1871 he edited and published Life and Letters of William Bewick, Artist, a book about his former colleague" (Oxford Grove Dictionary of Art).

A word to the wise, Landseer: Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty Homo Sapien. You ain't gonna make a human outta me!

LANDSEER, Thomas. Monkey-ana, or Men in Miniature. Designed and Etched by Thomas Landseer. [London]: F.G. Moon, August 1827. Engraved title and twenty-four  engraved  plates on china paper mounted on wove rag (watermark A.H. Holdsworth & R.S. Phillips, Dartmouth.) Folio. Three-quarter leather over contemporary marbled boards.

A second edition appeared in 1828, London: Moon, Boys, and Graves.

British Museum Satires 15638.

Images courtesy of Ars Libri Ltd., with our thanks.

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