Do what Victorian brides were advised to do -- shut your eyes and think of England -- and one of the things that comes to mind, along with wet weather and the monarchy, is a sense of humor.
Britons like jokes, and so have their artists from William Hogarth to the Chapman brothers. That’s the premise of a new show at Tate Britain in London: “Rude Britannia: British Comic Art.”
This is a survey of political cartoons, visual satire and lewd imagery from the 17th century until today, presented thematically rather than chronologically and with -- a more dubious ingredient -- some contemporary art thrown in. As an experience, it’s as much funny-peculiar as funny ha-ha, though the subject matter is as rich as a traditional suet pudding.
There’s a good case for saying that “comic” artists such as James Gillray (1757-1815) were at least as talented as most of their portrait- and landscape-painting contemporaries. They don’t usually make it into art history, excluded for not being serious enough although a lot of the work on show is not at all humorous.
It’s rude, as the exhibition title puts it, dealing with the messy underside of life: vomit, sex, drunkenness, obesity (all topics that might also come to mind when thinking of Britain). Some of it’s politically incorrect in the extreme.
For physical squalor, little in the work of Damien Hirst or Tracey Emin can beat Thomas Rowlandson’s print from 1811: “Distillers Looking Into Their Own Business.” It shows three repulsive elderly men drooling and dribbling into a tub labeled “Double Distilled Gin” (it’s an attack on makers of cheap, illegal gin, indicating the kind of stuff that might go into the product).
For inventiveness, vim and utter lack of respect, Gillray’s depictions of the politicians of the 1790s are unbeatable. Georgian caricatures seldom approach the sheer hatred of, for example, Martin Rowson’s 2009 “Why they wanted to hold the Iraq inquiry in private,” in which Tony Blair appears as a corpse in an advanced state of putrefaction, still cheery and grinning.
The violence of visual satire in Britain seems to have followed a J-curve. After the outrageous Regency era, Victorian caricature grew tame and so -- on this evidence -- political cartooning remained until a few decades ago, when the savagery factor zoomed up. Thus Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin were treated far more gently by London cartoonists than Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. (In contrast, Steve Bell’s John Major, seen as a luckless and lackluster superman with his underpants worn outside his trousers, looks almost affectionate).
It may say something about the British that the political section is more fun than the one labeled “Bawdy,” which tends toward the grim. This contains some salacious postcards by Donald McGill and jolly paintings by Beryl Cook of fat women and male strippers but also, for example, a video of the contemporary artist Sarah Lucas chopping up a large sausage with what looks like hostile symbolic intent.
The mixture of contemporary art -- such as Lucas’s piece -- with the comic variety is one of the drawbacks of this exhibition. The two don’t make a good blend. For one thing, the proper artists tend to be much less entertaining.
Another problem is that the curators are trying too hard, always a weakness with comedy. Accordingly, Hogarth’s engravings are “interpreted” by a cartoon character from Viz magazine. Humor works best when it’s immediate, light and subversive, so fitting it into art history is almost bound to spoil the joke.
“Rude Britannia: British Comic Art” is at Tate Britain, London, through Sept. 5. Information: http://www.tate.org.uk/.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)