SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 212 October 2017

The art of the subversive

Savage Ink: the cartoon and the caricature

People’s History Museum, Manchester, 16 September to 13 May 2018

Reviewed by Paul Gerrard

In Lorna Miller’s Agent Orange (2016) the man-child Donald Trump sits on a gold-plated potty bearing his name. He is playing with a toy USAF bomber, listening to the voices in his head reminding him it’s time for his spray tan. Someone is telling him to ‘be nice’ but the speech bubbles go in one ear and out the other. Against a background of utter desolation, he emits a gentle fart.

This image of Trump is one of the most unsettling ones from Savage Ink, the current exhibition of political cartoons at the People’s History Museum. It’s Trump to a proverbial T – the narcissism, the immaturity, the recklessness. After the initial shock, we recognise a profound truth and a shared understanding. We need political cartoons like these, to take establishment politicians – arrogant, venal, devoid of empathy – and show them up as ridiculous, demented or pathetic.

The exhibition takes a quotation from Steve Bell: "Cartoons… impart a tiny kind of power over a terrifying and incomprehensible world". As socialists we may agree that the capitalist world is terrifying, although not incomprehensible. We have an analysis of the processes in society, and have confidence that the working class can put an end to exploitation. In the meantime, while the struggle continues, we can take Bell’s point about political cartoons, and enjoy his products. Our enemies are cut down to size. We gain a momentary sense of power. Laughing out loud at cartoons is a subversive act in itself.

Savage Ink charts the development of the political cartoon from its pioneers and innovators in the 18th century through to artists currently working in graphic novels, comic books and newspapers. With over 100 cartoons from the museum’s archive, along with recently acquired pieces, the exhibition features works by William Hogarth, James Gillray, Gerald Scarfe, Steve Bell, Kate Evans, Lorna Miller, and Spitting Image creator Peter Fluck.

The exhibition locates the origins of the cartoon in the Italian Renaissance tradition of caricatura, exemplified by Leonardo da Vinci. This graphic style migrated to England in the 18th century and soon became a powerful weapon in exposing the corruption of politicians and royalty. The satirical cartoon played a significant role in destroying the reputation of prime minister Lord Bute in 1763. Although these prints, displayed in taverns and shop windows or sold for a few pennies, were often libellous, it was rare that artists were prosecuted as the ruling classes knew that legal action would only draw more attention to them.

Hogarth is well-represented here, not by his infamous Gin Lane but by a series of satirical portraits and a set of engravings, the Humours of an Election (1755), which expose the politicians of the day, Whig and Tory alike, for their corrupt practices. One bacchanalian image shows voters being ‘entertained’ (bribed) for their votes. Another plate shows the sick and nearly dead being dragged willy-nilly to the polls on election day.

While Hogarth’s engravings are realistic drawings exaggerated for satirical effect, in The Plum Pudding in Danger (1805) Gillray makes the imaginative leap of visualising the globe as a huge Christmas pudding. His target is the burgeoning inter-imperialist rivalry between England and France. He has William Pitt and Napoleon Bonaparte sitting calmly at the table, each carving a huge slice from a steaming hot globe. This use of imagery feels strikingly modern, much more akin to the political cartooning of our own age.

Of course, not all these antecedents are progressive. George Cruikshank’s Universal Suffrage or the Scum Uppermost!!!! (1819), produced just a few months before the massacre of protesters demanding voting rights at Peterloo, Manchester, depicts the working classes as a many-headed monster, blood dripping from every orifice, triumphant at the top of society’s pile, with the monarch’s crown at the foot. Another cartoon, by JL Marks, Much Wanted Reform among Females (1812), uses crude sexual innuendo to undermine women’s claim for the vote. It is not the powerful who are in their sights but those who seek to topple them.

Another section of the exhibition, Creature Features, displays the widespread use of animals as images of politicians. Gertrude Elias, a Communist Party member in the 1940s, produced a series of cartoons in which she satirised the Nazis as pigs, an idea George Orwell later adapted (plagiarised?) for his Animal Farm. In a CP publication, Communist Review, from 1921 the boss appeared as a chimpanzee, seated smugly in a luxurious armchair, wearing spats and smoking a cigar. Gerald Scarfe’s scathing portrayals of Neil Kinnock as the Lesser Welsh Speckled Dragon and Margaret Thatcher as a Sabre-Toothed Ptorydactyl are priceless.

The exhibition picks up on other incarnations of the political cartoon. In the section Stripped there are political spoofs from popular comic books. In B.L.A.I.R. Force One (2000), Tony Blair dressed in a denim jacket leers at you from a front cover with the caption: "He grins, he spins, he kicks Tory butt. But is he bionic or demonic?" The empty, red eyeballs tell you all you need to know.

Marjane Satrapi’s pictorial autobiography Persepolis (2000-03), depicting her childhood and early adult years in Iran before and after the Islamic Republic, with its stark black-on-white and white-on-black imagery, leaves a sober, slightly sinister impression. Graphic novelist Kate Evans’s Red Rosa (2015), a pictorial biography, has Rosa Luxemburg in statuesque profile, eyes closed in pain, as tiny first world war biplanes drop bombs in the folds of her hair, and reinforcements crawl up the nape of her neck to replace the dead.

The People’s History Museum is a significant attraction in Manchester city centre and lays great emphasis on making knowledge accessible and on opportunities for interaction with the displays. For this exhibition a family friendly room is equipped with a sofa and easel. At the end of another aisle there is a low desk with a supply of transfers of simple images to trace and some sharpened pencils for the visitor to begin to draw their own cartoons, or provide text for a blank placard. In the Writers’ Blocks corner, a stack of lightweight plastic blocks each bear a symbol – plane, monkey, clock – which can easily be arranged and rearranged to form a storyboard. These activities take the cartoon, render it accessible for adults and children alike, and encourage an imaginative response.

The exhibition is structured almost uniquely around British examples; there is no room for Charlie Hebdo here. The question of whether the political cartoon survives in the internet age is also beyond its scope. In one way, the crisis in the mainstream, bourgeois media threatens the cartoon’s viability, as a number of daily newspapers no longer feature an editorial cartoon every day. On the other hand, the graphically overloaded environment of the internet – with its vlogs and memes – could be a place for the cartoon, maybe even the self-produced cartoon, to flourish. It is noticeable that several of the contemporary cartoonists sign their work with a web address – some are listed below.

With this exhibition the People’s History Museum has succeeded in presenting the satirical cartoon in a way which would appeal to a family looking for a stimulating and fun afternoon, but is also of real interest for socialist activists.

Home About Us | Back Issues | Reviews | Links | Contact Us | Subscribe | Search | Top of page