"The Ass at School" by Pieter van der Heyden (1557)
"The Ass at School" by Pieter van der Heyden (1557)

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“Dearest art Collector,” reads the winking salutation in a letter hanging in the National Gallery of Art. “It has come to our attention that your collection, like most, does not contain enough art by women.” Paragraph break. “We know that you feel terrible about this and will rectify the situation immediately.” And then the complimentary close. “All our love, Guerrilla Girls.”

That letter—a lithograph, in fact, although one with a frowny-face flower serving as a letterhead—was meant as searing when the Guerrilla Girls issued it in 1968. Half a century later, it’s an entry in the National Gallery’s show on humor. The joke’s on them, or maybe the museum, or maybe all of us, since the National Gallery’s record of showing work by women artists is abysmal. At least the museum can laugh about it?

Sense of Humor, a summer survey of the permanent collection now on view in the West Building, searches for laughs as far back as the 15th century. The show explores the evolution of comedy in fine art, from etchings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder to comics by R. Crumb. It is above all a drawing show, and while on first glance it might look conservative—a practical overview of the evolution of a genre within works on paper—the pieces themselves are full of piss and vinegar.

A collaborative effort by three National Gallery curators (Jonathan Bober, Judith Brodie, and Stacey Sell), Sense of Humor reads like an exquisite corpse drawing. The show’s three rooms are arranged by chronological emphasis: the 15th through 17th centuries, 18th and 19th centuries, and the 20th century. Caricature is the through-line in the show, a baton handed from Jacques Callot to William Hogarth to Honoré Daumier.

The first crack comes in a 1470 woodcut from Germany, “Allegory of the Meeting of Pope Paul II and Emperor Frederick III.” Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor are wrestling, a symbolic depiction of their argument after Paul II rejected King George of Poděbrady of Bohemia in favor of the Utraquists. Paul’s got Frederick on the ropes! While the very earliest bits might get crickets from modern viewers, it’s a surprise how quickly fine art settles into fart jokes and political assassinations.

As with reading The Canterbury Tales, it takes some training to get past the intimidating and formidable language barriers with these early etchings; but as with Chaucer, it is a revelation to discover so much baudy, rambunctious, even asinine humor in them. A 1592 etching by Annibale Caracci shows a satyr trying to sneak a glance at Venus’ vulva as she sleeps; Cupid is hovering over her, protectively, and giving him the equivalent of the finger. Two-hundred years later, Jean-Honoré Fragonard was very much on the same tip with “The Armoire” (1778), an etching that shows a couple caught en flagrante in a wardrobe; the disheveled gentleman steps out with his hat over his member.

More sophisticated humor comes in the satire of William Hogarth and Honoré Daumier. The former’s “Strolling Actresses Dress- ing in a Barn” (1738) is a play within a play: a depiction of actors preparing a Roman drama that lambasts a law banning theater performed without a license. Daumier’s “Baissez le rideau, la farce est joée” (Lower the Curtain, the Farce is Over)” (1834) is far less subtle: He captures King Louis-Philippe as a corpulent clown.

The leap into the 20th century blows the show wide open, since fewer of these works require much hand-holding to understand. Rupert García’s “No More O’ This Shit” (1969), a screenprint send-up of the black chef on the Cream O’ Wheat box, is more or less a meme. A few of these works are still cryptic. Richard Hamilton’s 1968 “The critic laughs”—a photo of a Braun electric toothbrush with a denture affixed where the replaceable toothbrush head belongs, a dapple of abstract acrylic applied to the photo surface—is a response to Jasper Johns’ even stranger 1969 sculpture, “The Critic Smiles.” This critic smirked.

R. Crumb’s comics are always a delight, and a glass vitrine showing some 1970s-tastic work by him and his peers (Gilbert Shelton, Jim Nutt) for indies such as Hairy Who and Zap had me wondering whether a more expansive look at the funnies wouldn’t be a better bet for a show about humor. For all of Daumier’s extraordinary talents, it’s nevertheless hard to fully appreciate a piece like “Le ventre législatif (The Legislative Belly)” (1834) without knowing more about France’s Chamber of Deputies than anyone could possibly be expected to know today. Christina Ramberg’s “False Image Decal” (1969) bears all the pathos of Lichtenstein’s most famous “Brad” paintings, but it’s stranger and cooler.

Only one piece made me laugh out loud: Saul Steinberg’s “Parade 2” (1950– 51), an idle ink drawing made with the assistance of rubber stamps. Little men carry words reading “RUSH,” “VOID,” “APPROVED,” and “FRAGILE;” another mover bears the the artist’s fingerprint. The piece screams boredom, the kind of humor that emerges from being stuck in an office—the comedy of fucking around. This doodle looks like a New Yorker cartoon, but it’s one of the few drawings on view that doesn’t read like one. 

 At the National Gallery of Art to Jan. 6, 2019. 6th and Constitution Avenue NW. Free. (202) 737-4215. nga.gov.