I imagine most of us think of the art of caricature - which can be loosely defined as visual satire - as a modern development, roughly contemporary with the freedom of expression enjoyed in liberal societies. The first images that leap to mind, at least, are likely to come from current or recent newspapers: Richard Nixon's exaggerated narrow eyes and Alpine profile, Jimmy Carter's pianoforte of flashing teeth, Gerald Ford's imperturbable smile.
In fact, as the four invigorating volumes under review here show, irreverent and sometimes obscene abuse of prominent and powerful people dates back to early times indeed; no doubt there are comic distortions of unfavorite cave people scattered among the images preserved at Lascaux.
Edward Lucie-Smith's ''The Art of Caricature,'' a polished if somewhat hurried survey of the history and varieties of the form, shows us how the rudimentary vilifications contained in classical pottery and sculpture and medieval painting influenced the vigorous social criticisms of William Hogarth and his Regency contemporaries and Daumier and other outraged artist-citizens of France's Second Empire. They eventually culminated in the torrent of graphic protest that met Hitler's threat to world security, and has since become a staple element of journalism.
Lucie-Smith emphasizes the standard formal techniques of caricature. A favorite, of course is ''the tendency to endow human beings with animal forms, or to show animals engaged in human activities. William Heath did this by depicting the Duke of Wellington as ''The Prime Lobster.'' Another technique is to reveal a subject as what or who he really is, rather than what he pretends publicly to be. An example is an anti-Luther sixteenth century woodcut, a time of great religious controversy, which shows the devil playing bagpipes formed of Luther's head. This knowledgeable book is especially informative on the relationship of caricature to changing artistic styles and movements generally.
William Feaver's ''Masters of Caricature'' is a catalog of the work of 243 artists, complete with comprehensive general introduction, capsule essays on each artist's career, and explanatory annotations to individual drawings. Since caricature is of necessity topical, pictures from earlier periods must be accompanied by reasonably detailed information on contexts and circumstances.
Feaver usefully distinguishes the use of exact likenesses from the recourse to ''fantasy and exaggeration'' observable in such modern masters as Robert Osborn and the German expressionist Georg Grosz. He's especially incisive on the 18th-century artists Hogarth, whose ''Gin Lane'' is a recognized masterpiece of saeva indignatio, and James Gillray, usually considered the greatest English caricaturist. Some of the gems presented here: Sir John Tenniel's vivid picturing of Napoleon, an all-time favorite target, as ''The Eagle in Love''; Ben Shahn's sympathetic ''commemoration'' of Sacco and Vanzetti; and Brad Holland's stunning image of Idi Amin in a jester's cap and bells, the bells being miniature human skulls.
''The Image of America in Caricature and Cartoon,'' produced to accompany an exhibition of the Amon Carter Museum, begins with a long history-lesson of an Introduction by museum curator Ron Tyler, then settles down nicely to provide a panoramic display of pictorial reponses to crises throughout American history.
Tyler's industrious commentary effectively illumines some fascinating material from Colonial American artists and their British contemporaries. It also highlights some classic later images: Theodore Roosevelt as Ulysses resisting the blandishments of millionaire sirens (''the Tedyssey''); Thomas Nast's famous picture of ''Boss'' Tweed and his Tammany Hall gang as ''A Group of Vultures'' besieged by a storm of public protest; Arkansas segregationist governor Orval Faubus as a scrawny rooster facing down a startled American eagle. This richly interesting book should prove very useful in American studies courses.
Steven Heller's ''Man Bites Man'' includes ''portfolios'' of the work of 22 contemporary (1960-1980) artists. It's interesting to see the influence of modernist painting in such figures as Jean-Pierre Desclozeaux, Tomi Ungerer, and the urbane Edward Gorey, and the impact of popular magazines like The New Yorker in developing well-known contemporaries like George Booth and Ed Koren, whose enigmatic ''Still Life With Fish'' amuses me enormously, and inexplicably. Jules Feiffer's vivid neurotics are displayed here, as are several of the acclaimed David Levine's choicer inspirations: Mao as Michelangelo's Adam; and Dean Rusk and LBJ as Bonnie and Clyde.
There's some overlapping in these four books, and they share some omissions, including Herblock and the brilliant new editorial cartoonist Mike Peters. More important, they all offer an agreeable and fascinating education in an art form that flourishes in a democratic society. It's an understatement to say that they all belong in every public library.