|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Having a laugh?
Rude Britannia: British comic art
Tate Britain, to 5 September
STEPPING INTO the galleries of Rude Britannia at Tate Britain is like walking into a well-ordered attic. Beano and Viz comics rub shoulders with priceless pieces by George Cruickshank and James Gillray. A curious chamber-pot incorporating a bust of Napoleon can be found alongside collections of old photographs and postcards. Ostensibly, the main theme for this exhibition is an exploration of the many faces of rudeness in British comic art – six rooms featuring work ranging from the satirical and the grotesque to the bawdy and sexually explicit. But it might have better been entitled ‘Disrespect’.
The collection has a surprisingly broad historical sweep, spanning the mid-1600s to the present day. Political lampooning forms the backbone of the exhibition. One of the earliest examples (from 1654) is by the Dutch artist, van der Hoeve, and portrays the end of the turbulent and bloody civil war which overthrew the English monarchy in favour of parliament. The artist depicts Oliver Cromwell wearing the crown of King Charles I, with the latter’s severed head weighing heavily on the scales of blind justice. In 1805, Gillray penned his now famous (and much plagiarised) image of William Pitt and Napoleon Bonaparte at dinner, carving up the world in The Plumb Pudding in Danger. Contemporary works include the shocking (but sadly unlikely) Belgrano Nightmare – Thatcher Wakes Screaming (1982) by cartoonist Gerald Scarfe.
That political propagandists of all persuasions have exploited the power of comic art is well in evidence. In 1938, David Low created a beautifully simple pen and ink drawing in which Hitler and his generals are reduced to remorseful tears by the earnest reasoning of pacifists Aldous Huxley and Dick Sheppard. Meanwhile, the anti-war movement of today has used images such as the breathtakingly shocking photomontage showing a delighted Tony Blair, mobile phone aloft, photographing himself beside an exploding oil well.
Yet the political satire is likely to pose the biggest problem for the viewer. It largely requires recognition of the featured subjects and situations, and this becomes more difficult as time passes. In a printby an anonymous artist of 1652, for example, Louis XIV and James II ride a donkey while dressed as harlequins. A man in a religious costume with a windmill on his head carries a child while riding a lobster. Around them, other men ride snails and owls. This imagery and symbolism are likely to be lost on most contemporary viewers. In actual fact, they are an attack on the Dutch for their cruelties during the Anglo-Dutch wars of the mid-1600s.
Occasionally, however, a work of political satire is also timeless. The tragic Political Drama No.4: John Bull (1883) shows a depressed John Bull in a sparsely furnished kitchen beside a fireless grate and a table set with broken crockery. John Bull thinks morosely to himself that such is the lot of the ‘freeborn’ Englishman that, despite working hard all week, he is paid too late on the Saturday to buy food, coal, tobacco, tea or soap. He cannot go out – the austere church warden is patrolling outside his window – so he sits at home, cold, dirty, hungry and bored. Then as now, working hard and abiding by the rules does not guarantee the barest creature comforts.
Undoubtedly, one of the most compelling features of the exhibition is that the work displayed was intended to be accessible, rather than to serve the elite. Works of art have generally been objects commissioned or bought by the wealthy for their own consumption. Or, especially in architecture, as a means of reinforcing the separation of the classes. Such art continues to exist as a financial investment opportunity for the rich. Yet, while Rude Britannia’s objects were also frequently traded commodities, the growing prevalence of the printing press in Europe over the period featured allowed the mass production and cheap circulation of imagery, poetry, literature, drama, music and song. Art became less exclusive.
The accessibility of British comic art is also reinforced by the exhibition’s broad tolerance of techniques and styles: high art and low can intermingle. From the 1600s, European fine art spanned the baroque, the Dutch school, neoclassicism, romanticism, modernism and post-modernism, among others. Yet the comic art on show embraces the highly-accomplished, sharp political satire and skilful execution of Ralph Steadman, alongside the garish colours, simplistic imagery and schoolboy humour of Donald McGill, and a considerable number of pieces by anonymous amateurs.
British comic art did not only challenge the aesthetic elitism and exclusivity of the art establishment. It also celebrated the pleasures – mainly drinking and sex – that ‘polite society’, often cynical and hypocritical, tried to deny. It is almost inevitable that as Edwin Landseer produced his cloying morality paintings, and the pre-Raphaelites indulged a love of sickly-sweet romanticism, the Victorian working classes subverted newly emergent photographic technology to capture and mass produce pornography, and Aubrey Beardsley drew delicate works of erotic art. The antidote to orthodoxy is a powerful need and reminds us that there is always an underside to the story.
Yet the exhibition also shows that British comic art has indulged in moralising of its own. English artist William Hogarth spent a year (1732-3) painting a series of canvases, A Rake’s Progress, later mass produced in print. The scenes depict a young man as he inherits then squanders his father’s wealth, spends time in a debtors’ gaol, marries a rich widow, loses a second fortune, falls into insanity, and is finally interred in Bedlam. The contemporaneous narrative accompanying each image reinforces the moral message of the work. Nonetheless, in this and similar works, Hogarth has captured London street life in the richest detail and depicted an aspect of society ignored or at least sanitised by many of his contemporaries. His work provided later generations with a valuable, visual social record. Whether in high art or low, much would have been lost without such work.
The Rude Britannia title of the exhibition is inadequate. It fails to explain, for example, the inclusion of the Absurd Room, which contains surreal rather than ‘rude’ works, and where not all the featured artists are British. Nonetheless, the variety of exhibits and sheer range of media (paint, pen and ink, photography, sculpture, pottery, television drama, film and music) show that, for at least 300 years, every imaginable medium has been deployed in railing against prudery, stupidity, injustice, hypocrisy and, above all, authority. However tenuous the thread linking its exhibits, Rude Britannia celebrates an unapologetically disrespectful and largely egalitarian strand of art which flourished despite the snobbery and elitism of much of the art world.