Sunday 15 August 2010

Rude Britannia

Spitting Image's Margaret Thatcher
I've been meaning to see the Rude Britannia exhibition at the Tate Britain since it opened, and I thought that as it only has a few weeks left to run (it closes on 5 September), I should probably make the effort to go. So off I trotted to the Millbank gallery to see their collection of satirical cartoons, exploring British comic art from the 1600s to now.

Despite the main focus being on comic art, the exhibition includes examples from a huge range of different media and styles that have been used over the past four centuries. Allegory and caricature abound here, as the work ranges from ceramics and prints to the comic books and strips we recognise today. Understandably, there is an emphasis on social satire and politics, since these were such rich veins for the comic artists of early centuries to mine.

From 'A Rake's Progress', by William Hogarth
Room 2 focusses on the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, particularly 'Social Satire & The Grotesque'. Consumer society as we would recognise it began to expand in the 1770s, due in part to industrialisation and Britain's growing Empire. The fashions and fads of this new consumerist boom provided rich fodder for the comic artists, who lampooned the greed and depravity in their grotesque satire. The British printmaker William Hogarth was particularly prolific in the 1700s, and he has been credited with the invention of the comic strip, due to his use of sequential art. One of his most famous works came in 1735 when he published A Rake's Progress, eight panels that tell the story of a foolish youth who squanders his inheritance, and spends the rest of his life sinking into debauchery and debt, only to end his days in Bedlam.

The third room deals with the political caricature. Ever since the eighteen century, everyone from politicians and royals to celebrities have been the target for comics, cartoons and strips. The battles between William Pitt the Younger and Charles Fox provide the most material for the eighteenth century, while Napoleon, Gladstone and Disraeli are the main focus for the nineteenth century. The room also displays some truly astonishing satire featuring Hitler, Margaret Thatcher and John Major. My own personal favourites are the works concerning Tony Blair, particularly a photo of him allowing George Bush to stand on his back in order to climb onto a horse. Says it all, really.

Sexual humour and the concept of the absurd are also featured, although to a much lesser extent. To be honest, I'm scarcely surprised. The supposed 'humour' of the 'Bawdry' room is beyond crass, while the material representing the Absurd is just pointless. I fail to see the point of a taxidermied cat in a glass case holding up a sign saying "I'm Dead". Anyway.

I think one of the reasons why satire has always survived in comic format is that the medium carries the visual weight required for the 'punchlines' to have their intended effect. Political or satirical fiction can occasionally run the risk of appearing sanctimonious or patronising at best, and downright impenetrable at worse, but the cartoon carries the point quickly and effectively. A great deal of detail can be included in a single panel, using recognised symbolism as a form of visual shorthand. A Rake's Progress perfectly epitomises this point, as the activities of those around the Rake hint at what has led him to the point at which we find him in each panel.

Another reason the comic panel proved so popular was precisely because it was visual. While many of the older examples contain a lot of text, and the comic as we know it today usually involves dialogue, it is still possible to understand what is going on without being able to read. Printing shops used to display the panels in their windows, and people of all classes could view them for free. The fact that they were visual democratised their consumption, as opposed to the books which were accessible only to the rich and the educated. In some ways, their subject matter intended them to be instructional to the masses, but as the bad behaviour on display in the panels continued to occur, then this aspect was clearly largely ignored by the viewers.

We still have comics today, although I would argue that the emphasis has shifted, and when people think of comics now, they're more likely to think of something like Iron Man or Batman than Punch or Viz. Satire has largely moved onto the stage and screen, with TV shows like Spitting Image and the many shows featuring impressionist Rory Bremner using the capabilities of TV to put out satire in sketch format. Even comedies like Blackadder set out to lampoon current affairs using historical events as a reference point. The purpose is the same, to highlight the absurdity and hypocrisy of politicians, royals and celebrities, and like their eighteenth century forebears, the TV sketches require little education, and nothing more than a passing awareness of current events.

Of course, the advantage that both the comic and the sketch have is that even if you don't agree with the politics or the subject, you can still find them amusing, due to the employment of humour, and it is this which I believe makes satire such an important aspect of culture in general. As Ivor `Jest-ye-not-madam' Biggun of the Standing-At-The-Back-Dressed-Stupidly-And-Looking-Stupid Party in Blackadder III so memorably put it... "If you can't laugh, what can you do?"


Unknown said...

Thanks for this, Icy. You've given me a bit of education today. :)

Very interesting look at satire, comics and art here, and very well done.

Icy Sedgwick said...

Glad you liked it! I'm a big fan of comics, as pretty most people know, and while I don't like politics in the fiction that I myself write, I do like a good satire. Plus I love art history! It's difficult to 'grasp' art history without an interest in social history, and that in itself is a fascinating topic.

Jen said...

Some people like to say that satire (and subtlety is dead,) but I don't agree. People are still trying, and like you say, there'll always be the need to laugh so we don't cry.

This sounds like a great exhibit. I should make an effort to get out there.

Thanks for the music on Saturday night! We had a great time.

Mr. Divine said...

I love art history too. Brill post, it's made me read some of your fiction and I'm a fan after day one.

Icy Sedgwick said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it, Mr. Divine!

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