THE BLOG

A Picture Paints a Thousand Words

22/01/2015 10:04 GMT | Updated 23/03/2015 09:59 GMT

On a quiet Bloomsbury street a Londoner can find repose in a museum that, thankfully and quite deliberately, has hidden its light under a bushel. It's Bloomsbury's secret, snugged away around the corner from the much larger British Museum where one can find the Elgin Marbles (but more of that later). 

2015-01-21-cartmu.jpg

Inside the Cartoon Museum on Little Russell Street there exists a pleasant, uncensored atmosphere, the name of the game being education, the métier on offer that of the satirical cartoonist, our modern-day soothsayer.

Check your biases and prudishness at the door and enter to pass before the framed cartoons of yesteryear, some of which might make for uncomfortable viewing if political correctness is your bag. Here on offer are artistic works of vanished generations whose political views were decidedly entrenched alongside those of a more magnanimous persuasion; here you can follow the changing cant down the ages.

But centre stage is William Hogarth's small but apt collection of prints which highlight the continued importance of the satirical cartoon. This recent showing at the Cartoon Museum laid bare the vision of his steady, unflinching gaze.

Hogarth (1697-1764) chronicled London for over 30 years in paintings and engravings to capture Georgian London life in all its gilt and squalor. His acute observations of the human condition were played out in streets in which he was born, lived and died. He was stained by the experiences, bent out of shape by them perhaps, but at the same time they afforded him an opportunity to document the characters and politics of the day. And as only a Londoner could: with the accuracy of an insider, and without fiction.

In A Harlot's Progress and A Rake's Progress, then Gin Lane and Beer Street, the wit depicted in minute detail has the viewer leaning in, craning his neck. The devil's in the detail. You know it, so you lean in further. Then comes the squinting (in my case), the piecing together of London narratives that exist within the confines of the frames. The line of beauty is there and you seek it. And you find also that in 250 years, not much has changed in tales told about London.

The instinct of Hogarth to capture the stories of the street in which he strode as a non-passive observer, as a denizen and critic of mighty London - his own pulse keeping time with the pulse of the city - gave birth to a verdant satire that seems curiously absent from today's metropolis.

Here on show is one man's need to draw eloquently so that those who would see his sketches - other Londoners on whose wavelength he existed - could better view themselves, and in viewing, understand. This he well knew. He knew also of the power of the cartoon to withstand the changing tastes of the passing ages.

It is through appreciation of popular art such as Hogarth's that a person of urbaneness - surrounded as he or she is with every type of cultural stimulant, be it gallery, play or film - can best get to know themselves, because what the artist, or indeed cartoonist, employs is a magnification of reality equalled only by the novelist or journalist, yet with immediate visual impact that evokes a clarity of emotion.

The cartoonist with a forensic, scathing eye is better placed than other commentators to communicate complex issues to a public hungry for truths. His canvas, therefore, he can cram with ideas couched in humour, as the works of Gerald Scarfe, Ralph Steadman, Peter Brookes, David Low, Martin Rowson, Steve Bell and David Levine attest (some of whose work can be found in the museum) and whose unfettered savagery, openmindedness and perhaps sometimes even disdain are rendered with prolific aplomb.

Current exhibitions at the Cartoon Museum include a retrospective of Mark Boxer and 'Heckling Hitler' which looks at the political figures of World War 2 without fear of upsetting the visitor. 

The devil is in the details along with the humanity of the artist. You need only look to find it. Which brings us back to the Elgin Marbles whose artists and architects, when constructing the Parthenon in Athens, avoided straight lines because there are no straight lines in nature. The resultant classical frieze is of an enduring beauty that speaks to us to this day, as does the circumspect work of Hogarth whose careful artistic deliberations ensured that its impact would remain timeless.

It is worth remembering that satirical artists should be ever mindful of the need to root themselves with care and intelligence in the fast-shifting political landscape of the 21st century so that their pictures might clearly speak the phrases that we sometimes cannot.

Photo by @JasonAHolmes