Named after the devilish sprite in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and established in New York in 1876 by Austrian immigrant Joseph Keppler, Puck was a German-language satirical magazine (with an English edition following in 1877) that skewered powerful people and high society for the next 40 years. “With a Wink and a Nod—Cartoonists of the Gilded Age,” now open at the Driehaus Museum, displays 74 original drawings and some 20 magazines from this pioneering publication, providing invaluable insight into how the visual and written press interpreted, elucidated, and took the piss out of events in American history in the years between the Civil War and World War I.
The setting for the exhibit provides the perfect, if ironic context for the work. The opulent Nickerson House is precisely the kind of abode a Puck cartoonist would have drawn to depict the residency of the wealthy types the magazine loved to lampoon. The show is broken up thematically, with rooms devoted to “Modern Life,” “Love and Marriage,” “Culture and Society,” “Social Commentary,” “Cast of Characters,” and “Cornball Humor.” Each space houses original pen-and-ink drawings by noted illustrators of the day, like Louis Glackens and Louis Dalrymple, with the issues in which the drawings appeared presented in cases below each piece.
One of the joys of this show is that it details how an illustrated publication is assembled. Puck was one of the first weeklies to use full-color lithography, setting a standard that would be imitated later on by magazines like Life. The drawings in the exhibit bear the smudges, corrections, and notations inherent to the printing process—comparing them to their lithographic reproductions gives them added complexity and nuance. Many of the works can be appreciated purely on aesthetic terms: they were produced before photography was popularized, and are rendered with skill and acuity that is rare in contemporary visual art.
The artwork and its presentation undoubtedly convey the 19th century, yet much of the subject matter is timely. Alfred Zantzinger Baker’s The Haunted Auto depicts a driver spooked by the animals he’s killed with his reckless driving. And the many illustrations of the excesses of political figures will be familiar to anyone following the absurd current election cycle.
It remains to be seen whether The Onion or The Daily Show will be of interest to subsequent generations, but the artwork created by Puck‘s illustrators during its 40-year run holds up. Will a GIF of an eagle flying into Donald Trump’s hair hold someone’s attention 100 years from now? I wouldn’t bet on it, but I’m confident she’ll still be enjoying back issues of Puck. v