England: London exhibition on satire

Bush and Iraq war, cartoon by Steve Bell

From London daily The Morning Star:

Satirical snipers

(Tuesday 20 June 2006)

The Satirical London exhibition at the Museum of London

IT’S a laugh, innit, eh? Well, the sad truth is that it mostly isn’t, which is kind of why laughter exists.

Happy people don’t laugh – they just wander around zoos and sit in restaurants grinning like idiots.

For the rest of us, a good laugh is a vital release of tension and probably prevents the majority of humankind from flipping out completely and taking hostages.

Satire is a particular phenomenon within the broader category of humour.

It seeks to raise a laugh or a wry smile, but it is prepared to settle for a sneer.

The oldest known practitioner, the ancient Athenian Aristophanes, used crudity and savage allegory to take the piss out of the demagogues, warmongers and sleazoids of his own time.

Now, we’re mostly used to the idea of satire as a reasonably progressive thing – stemming from the songs of Tom Lehrer, via the “great satire boom” of the 1960s, which gave us Private Eye, to Not The Nine O’Clock News and Spitting Image and beyond.

The latest exhibition at the Museum of London, Satirical London, seeks to show how satire has served many different functions in the capital – initially being a reactionary medium which made fun of the poor and excluded, before transmuting into a means for harsh critiques of poverty and inequality.

The exhibition, and its accompanying book, follows visual satire in London from the 18th century to the present day.

Written by the museum’s curator of paintings, prints and drawings Mark Bills, it is illustrated with a wide selection of images from his vast collection of satirical images and caricature.

Satirical London is a fascinating exhibition and the book is an excellent – if occasionally heavygoing – accompaniment.

My only real gripe is that is picks up pace towards the end and only gives a cursory once-over to the great practitioners of the present day – Martin Rowson and Steve Bell.

Rowson makes no secret of his admiration for the likes of Hogarth and Gillray and he clearly sees himself as their natural successor.

His amazing updating of Hogarth’s classic Gin Lane – Cocaine Lane – is given prominence in the book, but Bell seems less well served, with only a couple of his less well-known works.

Fortunately, the Steve Bell deficiency has been remedied in the latest collection by the greatest left-wing cartoonist that the Morning Star could never afford to hire.

If … Marches On celebrates the strip’s 25th anniversary and brings the lucky reader all the savage satirical surrealism that is Bell’s great gift, without having to buy the Guardian and wade through loads of bollocks about podcasts, Bono’s latest attempt to save the world and the incredible “achievements” of the Blair government, courtesy of new Labour’s tame columnists.

The volume follows the same format as previous collections – the If … cartoon strips reproduced with a brief introduction by Steve Bell himself, giving you a bit of the old historical context, interspersed with some full-colour reproductions of his marvellous fine art-inspired set pieces.

Some of these are incredible. They give new life to the cliche that a picture paints a thousand words.

Let’s face it, the man’s a bloody genius.

His underpant-toting John Major was one of the great satirical icons of the 1990s, but even that is now eclipsed by his depiction of Dubya as a warmongering chimp.

I’m not sure if he was the first to spot the US president’s simian nature, but he’s sure done it the best.

Bell has a knack of bringing us the great and the good in such a way as to make it clear that they are neither.

We live in an age of crooks, con artists and mediocrities and he demonstrates this admirably, from the zombie-like Blunkett to the hopelessly rubbish Jack Straw, to the swivel-eyed psycho android king that is Tony Blair.

Steve Bell has no respect – and this is why I’ve always loved his work. He makes it clear that he despises this misbegotten bunch of human detritus as much as I do.

The only characters in his work with a shred of sanity and common sense are his supporting hordes of bolshie penguins.

He also has a fantastic grasp of language and syntax, which not all artists can manage.

Update: David Blunkett on his resignation and Iraq war.

2 thoughts on “England: London exhibition on satire

  1. I too found this fascinating. Visited on Friday. One of the things that did strike me was how some things have hardly changed or have changed very little – Cruikshank’s Art of Walking the Streets of London (1818) involves poking people in the eye with umbrellas, stopping and standing in the middle of the busy pavement… Much like Oxford Street today!


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