Example of a comic foreground

A comic foreground at Italian Swiss Colony winery in Asti, California. Circa 1966

I’ve seen these in places like amusement parks, fairs, museums and other places where mirth is encouraged and rarely in places where mirth is reviled like funerals, sentencing hearings and airport TSA checkpoints.  And  in all the years I’ve seen them, I’ve never thought that this thing has a name. It was always that thing made of plywood and with a picture painted on it and a hole strategically placed where a head or face might be in the painted picture. You know, one of those. You know, it usually has a picture of a woman in an old fashioned bathing suit and a strong man holding a dumbbell above his head. A man would put his head in the hole a top the woman’s body and a woman would do likewise in a hole above the strongman’s neck. Then hilarity ensued with photographs being taken and shared with friend and foe. A total blast. Anyway, when I went to label this slide I wasn’t satisfied with my accurate, but  cumbersome name. After a few variations on a theme in the Google search box, I finally found the name for these things. It turns out they are called “comic foregrounds” or “passe-tetes” as the French like to call them.  What’s cool about them is the man who invented them or at least held a patent on a version of them for a while, was a man by the name of Cassius Marcellus Coolidge. Cash as he was known to his friends and now me, worked a lot of jobs in his career but mostly worked as a painter and illustrator. So as if the comic foreground wasn’t enough of a cultural contribution to the world, this man is responsible for something far greater to the world of the comedic visual arts. According to my sources (listed below in form of links) Cash worked for an advertising firm Brown and Bigelow and was hired to produce advertising calendars. Over the course of 10 years, he painted sixteen oil paintings of dogs doing things that dogs have no business doing. And in several of those anthropomorphic images those dogs were playing poker. The man responsible for comic foregrounds is also the man responsible for one of the greatest memes of the 20th century.  Not only is it art, but one of those things that has a permanent place in our national comedic reference canon, right next to the rubber chicken and the spit take. So the next time you stick your head through one of these, thank old Cassius for not only the incredibly adorable photo you are going to have of your kid or spouse, but also for the one piece of art that defines a man cave better than any other.

Information sources:

http://www.dogsplayingpoker.org/bio/coolidge/bio1.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cassius_Marcellus_Coolidge

http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=10486199

Oh and while researching this I stumbled across this app for the iPhone:

https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/dogs-playing-poker/id335614388?mt=8

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