Cartoons are simplistic right?, they are silly and at times, bitter and crass – and for all of these qualities, they remain the artform that best captures us and the times we live. Cartooning is now; it is present, direct and unwavering.
Cartooning as a political tool has been around for millennia, with political cartoons found on the walls of Pompeii. Still, the real golden age came in the late 18th Century with the American and French revolutions and the Napoleonic war – cartooning became the voice of the people and profoundly impacted the course of these events.
Throughout this period, political cartoonists, such as Thomas Rowlandson and George Cruikshank reduced complex diplomatic ideas to simple images, and in doing so, were able to communicate with a mostly illiterate audience. This period saw a great flourishing of etched cartoons and caricatures, poking fun at kings, noblemen, society ladies, French revolutionaries, the institution of marriage, and the increasing middle class. These cartoons did much to temper the political extremes of the time and the freedom to publish these cartoons, particularly in England, was seen as one of the hallmarks of its growing democracy. Technological developments and the rise of the early forms of newspapers, known as broadsheets, encouraged a switch from verbal to visual satire. Using humour, shock and exaggeration, they inspired a politically engaged audience that increasingly wanted a say in politics as well as impacting the course of history.
For example, while Napoleon Bonaparte was able to invade and conquer most of Europe, history primarily remembers his short stature, due to the work of one man: the British cartoonist James Gillray (1756-1815). Gillray's caricatural depictions of the French general were so popular and influential that at the end of his life, Napoleon said that Gillray "did more than all the armies of Europe to bring me down." And by the way, Napoleon was actually 5'5 a perfectly average height for men of the time.
The tone and subject of political cartoons have not diminished over time; they still skewer and strike at our most revered of institutions and find pleasure in leaving no one unscathed. As the most responsive and digested visual art form, they still have the ability to change the conversation and get to the heart of our weaknesses and frailties. That's pretty powerful.
Image Credit: James Gillray, “The Plumb-pudding in danger, _ or _ State Epicures taking un Petit Souper” (1805), original hand-colored etching on wove paper, 260 x 360 mm. Pitt and Napoleon, both in full uniform, seated either side of the globe, a large plum pudding, Pitt using a knife to carve a large slice through the Atlantic, to include the West Indies, while Napoleon uses a large sword to carve Europe away, leaving only the British Isles, Scandinavia and Russia. Image Bloomsbury A