Caricature and political cartoons: essential satire or old news?
As Spitting Image returns to our screens, we explore the long heritage of satirical cartoons and assess whether they’re destined to thrive or become tomorrow’s fish and chip paper.
In a 1945 essay titled “Funny, But Not Vulgar”, George Orwell made a case for biting satire and stinging political cartoons. “A thing is funny when – in some way that is not actually offensive or frightening – it upsets the established order,” he wrote, followed closely by one of his famous aphorisms: “Every joke is a tiny revolution.”
This weekend saw the much-anticipated return of Spitting Image, 24 years after it came off air. Launched in 1984, the original series saw grotesque and savagely irreverent puppets, representing political and cultural figures of the day, lampooned in a fast-moving sketch-show format. The show’s creator Roger Law has said he decided to bring back the series in 2020, because of a sense of seething anger at our current crop of global leaders.
GallerySpitting Image (Copyright © ITV, 2020)
The series, now hosted on streaming platform Britbox, hasn’t lost its bite. Early on in the first episode, we find a revolting puppet of Donald Trump’s anus tweeting for him as he lies in bed; we see an alien-species Dominic Cummings trying to eat Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s new-born baby; and UK Home Secretary Priti Patel depicted as a vampire. It is at times shocking and clearly delights in its flirtation with offensiveness.
Indeed, before the first episode even aired, the early press shots of the puppets whipped up a storm of social-media controversy. Some critics argued that it was unfair to mock Greta Thunberg, the climate activist, because she is 17-years-old and has autism. Others felt that the depiction of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg leant too heavily on anti-Semitic stereotypes (including a “gratuitously large, hooked nose and ghoulish appearance”, according to the Campaign Against Antisemitism).
“Cartoonists and caricaturists try to capture what they’d call the inner essence.”Tim Benson
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Spitting Image: Greta Thunberg (Copyright © ITV, 2020)
Some might dismiss this criticism as just so much hot air on Twitter. However, it poses many questions about the centuries-old art form of satirical cartoons and caricatures. Who is fair game and who is simply off limits? Where is the line between a sharp likeness and an offensive depiction? Is it even funny to accentuate certain features when really a politician’s appearance has little to do with what makes them laughable or even contemptuous?
It’s perhaps worth starting at the beginning. Few people better understand the history of political cartoons, and the long line of satirical creative work that ends in this new series of Spitting Image, than Tim Benson. He’s the editor of a new volume of cartoons published by Hutchinson, Britain’s Best Political Cartoons 2020, though he’s edited seven previous annuals before this. (When we speak, Tim admits: “The worse things get, the better the books become.” This year’s edition must be absolutely brilliant then...)
“They call James Gillray the father of political cartooning,” he explains, referring to the cartoonist first published in the late 1700s. What we now call editorial cartoons, however, really first started appearing in the mass-circulation press of the late 19th century. “The reason editorial cartoons came about was that newspapers were aesthetically incredibly dull, because photography didn’t really exist,” he explains. “The great thing about the cartoon is it broke up the text.”
For Tim, cartoonists are at their best throughout history when they’re not just focusing on a person’s outward appearance, but instead trying to find some deeper truth. “Cartoonists and caricaturists try to capture what they’d call their inner essence, they try to capture their being, so that very often their depictions become more like the person than the person themselves,” he says.
Tim cites Steve Bell, a veteran political cartoonist whose work is most often seen in The Guardian, as a perfect exponent of this method. Steve depicted 1990s Prime Minister John Major with his underpants over his trousers, which “captured his nerdiness”; the famously vain Tony Blair with “an ever-growing bald patch”; and David Cameron simply as a condom. “The best cartoonists,” says Tim Benson, “bring out what these people really are.”
“Caricature is a way of displaying someone’s psychological traits and demeanours in the physical realm.”Ellie Foreman-Peck
Illustrator Ellie Foreman-Peck, whose work appears regularly in The Economist, The New Statesman, The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker, rarely leans so far towards full-blown visual metaphor, but she manages to capture her subject’s essence in more subtle ways. She’s confident that caricature will continue to delight viewers. “People will always enjoy looking at people,” she says, “and caricature is a way of displaying someone’s psychological traits and demeanours in the physical realm, which is very satisfying. I believe it will morph into something different but at its core the desire to capture a person’s essence through imagery will always be appealing and engaging.”
Ellie cites James Gillray among her biggest artistic influences, alongside Daumier, Hogarth, Hockney, Picasso and many more. “I can draw a portrait on a sliding scale from caricature to realist, depending on what mood is desired,” she says. “This is often steered by the mood or message of the text it will be accompanying. For caricatures, I emphasise certain distinctive features and try to make them playful rather than scathing and grotesque.” To bring a person alive on the page can sometimes be as simple as emphasising a certain body posture, facial feature or even hand gesture.
Ellie makes a clear distinction between drawing a politician and drawing a private citizen. “For private citizens, I try to be sensitive and avoid leaning towards the grotesque,” she says. “However, for politicians and political satire, I feel all politicians should be fair game. To be free to lampoon them, point out the absurd and the unjust, is part of a healthy democracy.”
Clearly this is where Spitting Image is at its best, highlighting Dominic Cummings’ apparent lack of humanity, mocking Johnson’s buffoonery, and manifesting Trump’s ability to quite literally talk out of his arse. But perhaps in their depiction of Greta Thunberg – a teenager and a globally recognised activist, but not someone who has not sought public office – they haven’t shown enough of the sensitivity that Ellie alludes to.
Wilfrid Wood is an artist and sculptor who worked as “an apprentice head-builder” on the original series of Spitting Image (he describes the work as “making eyeball and blink mechanisms, fitting skulls into latex heads; it was all very fiddly and mildly dangerous”). He says he hates caricatures and tries not to do them. “Generally, they’re crude and formulaic,” he explains. “Nonetheless nearly all portraits have an element of caricature in them, as do mine, I grudgingly have to admit. There’s a long greyscale with Spitting Image at one end and Rembrandt on the other. I’m aiming for Rembrandt but can’t resist the dirty allure of Spitting Image.” And it’s not just Rembrandt – he also points to Alice Neel and Lucien Freud as renowned artists who exaggerated in their work in order to reveal character.
Exaggeration doesn’t have to be offensive either. “I try to make people look as individual as possible, so sticking out ears, big noses, thin lips – often it’s whatever people dislike about their appearance that I celebrate,” says Wilfrid. “I like to feel I do my bit for inclusivity!” He, too has sculpted his own version of Greta Thunberg, for instance, and hopes his depiction is “a sympathetic and dignified one”, even though he has accentuated some of the activist’s facial features.
“Wonderful-looking people can be boring as hell. Mouldy old potatoes can have a lot going for them.”Wilfrid Wood
At the end of the day, focusing solely on someone’s physical appearance is the wrong approach. “You shouldn’t mock someone purely for how they look,” Wilfrid says. “Fundamentally, you need to somehow express something about the subject’s character through their appearance.” He also points out that “appearance and character can be in opposition. Wonderful-looking people can be boring as hell. Mouldy old potatoes can have a lot going for them.” This is what Wilfrid describes as “the weird interplay between how a person looks and what they’re like”, something he consistently tries to capture in his own work.
And what of that George Orwell essay and his claim that for satire to be funny, it must avoid being “offensive”? Wilfrid admits that it’s a murky area in his line of work. “I always worry about offending people with my portraits,” he says. In the case of Spitting Image, he says a lot of it depends on your political leanings. “When they make Michael Gove’s face look like a cock and bollocks, the level of offence taken probably depends on whether you like Michael Gove or not,” he says. “And since most people who work in the arts and watch Spitting Image are left-leaning, the chances are you don’t like him so you’ll love the ball-sack cheeks.”
It also partly comes down to the “social mores of the times”, Wilfrid adds, pointing out that in recent months several sketches from the comedy series Little Britain have been pulled from streaming platforms due to the actors using blackface. As the actors themselves have admitted, it was wrong even 15 years ago, when the episodes first aired. But even so, they were still freely available until May this year. Times have changed. As such, it’s highly likely that we’ll look back on some of today’s caricatures and cartoons and find them offensive in ways we’re not necessarily aware of now.
The other factor here is that political cartoons and caricatures are nowhere near as ubiquitous as they once were. Tim Benson points out that in the 1980s there were around 200 editorial cartoonists gainfully employed in the US; “now there are just a handful.” Meanwhile, “a number of cartoonists in Britain have been laid off this year, so we’ve lost a regular cartoon slot.” On TV, the first series of Spitting Image received up to 15 million viewers a week; the new series will probably consider itself fortunate if it garners one million.
You could argue that this kind of satire has been replaced by meme culture on social media and by comedians like Sarah Cooper and her lip-syncing over Trump speeches. It’s become a bit of a cliché over the past four years to say that satire is dead, that comedy can’t compete with the farce of reality anymore. This is where Spitting Image perhaps has an edge over the panel show and other satirical formats. If the world gets absurd, these puppets can always go one step further – and they do. Every joke might not be a tiny revolution, but the show still has the power to shock in a world practically numb to new surprises.
Spitting Image: Donald Trump and Melania Trump (Copyright © ITV, 2020)