Britain is in Rude Health

From Hogarth to Spitting Image, nothing defines our national identity better than comic art

Art
Bird of prey: Gerald Scarfe portrayed Mrs Thatcher as a "Ptorydactyl" in 1989

The funny thing about comic art is that it is rarely comic (the same is true of most self-proclaimed humorous novels too). Ernst Gombrich, the doyen of art historians, once said: “I have spent a lot of time on the history of caricature, but hardly ever laughed, and barely smiled.” But then Gombrich was Germanic. And that highlights another oddity: comic art is a predominantly British genre. Other countries have a tradition of pictorial humour — the Dutch with their bawdy tavern scenes, the French with the caricatures of Louis-Léopold Boilly and the satires of Honoré Daumier, the Germans have the graphic excoriations of George Grosz and the Italians the grotesques of Leonardo. But no other country can justifiably claim that its comic art is not just a true expression of national character but an integral part of its artistic and cultural history too.

Rude Britannia: British Comic Art at Tate Britain (until 5 September) is a lively examination of our artistic funny bone. Although it could have started with medieval misericords and gargoyles, the exhibition covers the period from 1600 to the present and has sections chosen by the likes of Harry Hill, Gerald Scarfe and the Viz cartoonists. What it offers is a running commentary on our changing political and social mores told through prints and postcards, Toby jugs and contemporary installations. 

One of the reasons comic art is our national art is because our indigenous tradition is relatively young. In the broadest of terms, it emerged alongside the new conception of Britishness that was best symbolised by the Act of Union in 1707. The resulting Britishness was characterised by the notion of humour, freedom of speech and a lack of respect for authority. There was a vigorous print tradition already in existence (the Civil War had spawned numerous allegorical and allusive popular images) but it was Hogarth who made humour part of our foundation myth. He suited the new John Bullishness perfectly: we may not have had Renaissance Old Masters but in him we had an irreverent, red-of-cheek, French-baiting young master. He became the original BritArt father figure.

While Hogarth saw himself as having noble aims and his paintings of “modern moral subjects” as representing a new type of art, others saw first and foremost the humour. A strain of British art descended from his perceived image — from James Gillray via Heath Robinson through Donald McGill’s saucy seaside postcards to the hyper-aware and referential YBAs (Young British Artists), such as the Chapman brothers.

The two main targets of comic art — politics and society — are both examined here. It is a truism that it is the biggest, most divisive characters that elicit the most vigorous responses from artists: Napoleon and George IV; Pitt and Fox; Hitler; Thatcher and Blair. The stronger the feelings they aroused, the stronger the images they inspired. There is, in historical terms, a pleasing co-dependence between, say, Gillray and Pitt, David Low and Hitler, Fluck and Law and Mrs Thatcher. While Disraeli may not have needed caricaturists to bolster his self-image, being lampooned is one way for modern politicians to know they have arrived — luckily for them they are spared much of the scatological coarseness to which their forbears were subjected.

Society itself has always been seen as Vanity Fair, with every quirk and idiocy held up to ridicule. The 18th-century fashion for vertiginous hairstyles, dandyish “Macaronis”, the fat and the thin, false teeth and quack cures were all fit subjects for the inventive nib. Sex, of course, is a bottomless well and in the eye-wateringly graphic inventions of Thomas Rowlandson it found a brilliant interpreter. But Rowlandson shows too that comic art is almost never high art. His cartoon of a group of lascivious old men dribblingly studying the nether regions of a naked girl in the pose of an upside-down cyclist is really a version of the theme of Susanna and the Elders but its explicitness and the removal of the Biblical fig leaf make it irredeemably low. 

If the national coin is marked with a robust humour on one side, then vulgarity and viciousness mark the reverse: it is an uncomfortable truth that this exhibition does not seek to examine. What it shows instead is British life as carnival and, like a carnival, it may not always be very edifying but it is entertaining.

Art from slightly below the salt is also the subject of the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s latest piece of imaginative exhibition making, The Wyeth Family: Three Generations of American Art (until 22 August). This examination of the painterly dynasty starts with the magazine and book illustrator N. C. Wyeth (1882-1945), moves on to his son Andrew — an unfashionable but significant figure in post-war American art — and then to Andrew’s sister Henriette and his son Jamie. For all the century and more timescale, the Wyeths share a family sensibility. They are storytellers and artistically their nation is demonstrably that of Winslow Homer, Grant Wood and Edward Hopper (although they do not hit the same heights). 

The family was descended from old New England stock and their pictures, whether N. C.’s illustrations of US Marines or square-jawed fishermen, Andrew’s solitary figures adrift in the Maine landscape, and Jamie’s surreal and sometimes sinister images of Halloween pumpkin fields and rural dreamscapes, all share a fine, illustrative technique. They all show a concern with realism, and above all with the vastness of America and its historical footings. 

Andrew aside, they have no great claim to pre-eminence, but collectively their work chronicles something of America’s own journey from a wholesome pre-war groundedness through post-war alienation to a knowing modernity. If Rude Britannia offers a version of how we see ourselves, then the Wyeths offer a distinctive all-American family’s own view of their homeland.