The English artist and writer Sir Max Beerbohm (1872–1956)—or just “Max,” as he came to be known—felt the uneasiness about the power of celebrity that many of us feel today. He longed to be a celebrity himself: to be admired and sought after, to earn money and wield influence. From an early age, he fashioned an instantly recognizable public persona as a sophisticated London dandy in beautifully tailored suits. (This was unchanging, from his first success as a writer and caricaturist in late-Victorian London through his career as a BBC radio personality in the 1930s and 40s.) At the same time, he was aware of the dangers that cultlike worship posed. He worried, too, that unrelenting pursuit of popularity could destroy both art and its makers.
Beerbohm’s way of dealing with this conflict was to become famous for pricking the balloons of those who were famous. He parodied their writings. He exhibited and published caricatures making fun of their physical appearance. He produced essays and reviews that were amusing but sharply critical. He wrote comic fiction about people obsessed with becoming celebrities or being with them. Whatever he admired, he also questioned and mocked, including the concept of celebrity. Today, he offers an example of how art can address the world around us, yet also stand apart, especially through laughter. Contemporary comic writers, social commentators, and graphic novelists who deal in irony, visual humor, and pointed satire stand on his shoulders (though he would have asked them politely to stand somewhere else).
This exhibition is organized by The New York Public Library and curated by Margaret D. Stetz, Mae and Robert Carter Professor of Women's Studies and Professor of Humanities at the University of Delaware, and Mark Samuels Lasner, Senior Research Fellow, University of Delaware Library, Museums and Press, with the assistance of Julie Carlsen, Assistant Curator, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, The New York Public Library.
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