LONDON (Reuters) - “I think of them all as prats to start with and work from there” — veteran cartoonist Gerald Scarfe’s irreverent approach to politicians he lampoons is typical of a new show celebrating British humour in art.
“Rude Britannia: British Comic Art,” which opens at Tate Britain in London on Wednesday and runs until September 5, traces the comic in British art from the 17th century to today, taking in William Hogarth, the “Carry On” comedy films and television show “Spitting Image.”
Scarfe, who helped design the room dedicated to politics in the exhibition, said political leaders from Napoleon to Churchill and Thatcher were fair game.
“Those arrogant enough to set themselves up as our leaders are there to be questioned,” he told Reuters at the show.
“It’s great to be able to make a point, and it’s healthy too,” added Scarfe, who has been cartoonist at the Sunday Times for more than 40 years and is also renowned for his animation work for rock group Pink Floyd and its “The Wall” album.
“Cartoonists are the mavericks of the art world ... but have not been accepted in the same way (as other artists),” he said. “They don’t realise the same prices and they don’t realise the same attention.”
In Rude Britannia, which goes some way to redressing that imbalance, Scarfe depicts a tiny Napoleon on a giant white horse, Thatcher as a prehistoric creature “Torydactyl” and Barack Obama as Superman with his feet stuck in glue-like oil.
Scarfe said he had few regrets when Labour’s Gordon Brown lost the general election, dismissing him as “dull, dour and difficult to depict.”
He is now taking aim at Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, whom he depicts wearing a bow tie and evening tails to underline his privileged background.
“I always try and annoy them a little bit,” he said.
Another dominant figure in the exhibition is Hogarth, the 18th century artist and satirist who inspired others to lampoon the greed and depravity they felt went hand-in-hand with growing consumerism during the age of industrialisation.
An entire room is dedicated to 19th century artist George Cruikshank and his large canvas “The Worship of Bacchus,” which sets out to warn Britain of the dangers of alcohol abuse but was largely ignored when it toured the country in Victorian times.
A room called “The Bawdy” focuses on the risque side of comic art, featuring rude puns, sexual jokes and erotic imagery, while “The Absurd,” curated by comedian Harry Hill includes a series of surreal images.
Among them is a stuffed cat in a glass case holding a sign with the words “I’m dead” and a door behind which is a fake wall.
“Sometimes I think that some artists want to be comedians but it’s easier to be an artist because you don’t need to finish it off with a punch line,” Hill said in an interview published in the catalogue for the show.
“They’re not quite funny enough because if you’re an artist you don’t actually need to have a laugh.”
Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato