From Hogarth’s caricature of John Wilkes to recent cartoons of Donald Trump, the latest exhibition from the People’s History Museum celebrates several centuries of political satire in visual art.
The main draw of comics is that the artist can elicit so much emotion without many words. It’s therefore a truly remarkable achievement that the curators of Savage Ink: The Cartoon & the Caricature have dedicated an entire exhibition to influential cartoons without saying much at all.
The problems start immediately upon entering the show. The layout is unclear; somehow you’re supposed to know to start in the middle of the room, rather than (logically) beginning at one of the two ends. The only way to make sense of the exhibition is to start in the middle section, which displays the Golden Age of cartoons (caricatures from the eighteenth century by the likes of William Hogarth), and work your way outwards. This is also the only section where cartoonists are given biographies. If you make the mistake of starting at one end and working your way to the other, then you don’t receive explanations for some of the terms and characters depicted – such as John Bull – until you make it to the centre of the exhibition space.
For the majority of the show, the onus lies on you to supply much of the detail on why the cartoons are significant. The descriptions are unevenly distributed and heavily favour the historical cartoons. This is an obvious attempt to remain neutral on the political stances depicted in modern cartoons featuring Brexit or Trump. Yet in sitting on the fence politically, the exhibition renders its content toothless.
There are some particular highlights, such as ‘More Plots!!! More Plots!!!’, published by SW Fores in 1817. The four panels depict predators blaming their prey for being prey. In one, a hawk swoops down, talons extended upon a hen and her chickens, while crying out, “The Worlds over-run with Iniquity, & these troublesome Miscreants will not let honest Hawks sleep in security.” Although a satirical take on the Crown prosecutions of 1817, it’s easy to see the parallels to the fear-mongering and victim blaming of modern politicians.
A baffling curatorial choice is the display of Peter Fluck’s cartoon ‘Margaret Thatcher’ (1980), which shows former Secretary of State Keith Joseph holding the Conservative Party’s famous ‘Labour Isn’t Working’ campaign poster. The museum possesses the original poster as well and showing the two side by side would have been a powerful statement on the inspiration for and importance of cartoons. However, neither the original poster nor an image of it is displayed in the exhibition. Instead, directions given to view it upstairs in the Main Gallery are hung in its place.
In another strange move, a placard claims that “caricatures may no longer hold the same power” today as they did in the past. This statement completely ignores furors caused by publishing cartoons in the past few decades, such as the violent responses to religious caricatures in the Danish tabloid Jyllands-Posten and the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. These caricatures, and others like them, inspired intensely political responses and to say that modern caricatures are not as powerful completely misses the point. Then again, so does this exhibition.
Savage Ink: The Cartoon & the Caricature is at the People’s History Museum, Manchester, until 13th May 2018. For more information click here: http://www.phm.org.uk/whatson/savage-ink/