The cartoon shows a painting on an easel, and the painting shows a kind of critter, whose body is made of looping, tubular forms, and whose head - a transparent, fish-like oval - hovers in the air next to it. We're clearly meant to recognise this creation as a work of modern art, vaguely the school of Miro or Picasso. But the canvas is labelled "Self-portrait". And in front of it, wielding brush and palette, stands the artist - who is, of course, a critter absolutely identical to the one in the painting.
This cartoon, by "Hayland", appeared in Lilliput magazine in 1943. It's quite funny, mainly because the critter has an amusingly eager and determined expression. But if you know the field, the basic joke is familiar. It's the same joke that many 20th-century cartoonists made about modern art. The idea is that modern art, with all its famous distortions and mutations, is, in fact, a perfectly accurate picture of reality. It's just that the reality it portrays is very weird.
The joke, like many jokes, involves a deliberate misunderstanding. If there's one thing everyone knows about the styles of early-20th-century art - Expressionism, Futurism, Cubism - it's that they're not meant to be realistic. They take the everyday visible world and subject it to a radical artistic reconstruction. They are not a literal resemblance of anything. So, perversely, the cartoonists decide to take modern art literally. They make out that it's really an eyewitness account of an alternative universe.
They are not just being humorously contrary. They're making a point. They're saying to the modern artists: you think you can simply put the question of resemblance aside. You think you can make people stop asking: what does that look like? But you can't. Because, despite your intentions, your pictures do look like something - albeit something bizarre.
But it was not only sceptical cartoonists who took this view. Some modern artists did, too. They saw how the devices of modern art had the potential to create visionary worlds, peopled by imaginary creatures. This is what Wyndham Lewis does in One of the Stations of the Dead. He uses the visual language of "synthetic Cubism" to conjure up an ineffable state of being.
The scene: an under world. A group of humanoid figures stand in line across the foreground. These are waiting souls, and we're in some after-life scenario, derived from the classical Hades or Dante's Inferno. We are, in fact, literally underground. Rich earth colours predominate. But in what way under the ground? The first strange thing about this picture is the elusiveness of its space.
There is some sense of a view, receding behind the line of figures - very steeply receding, up a kind of cobbled ground, with a river of deep ultramarine beyond, and a ship with a red sail approaching. But equally there's a feeling that we're looking, not at a cavernous landscape, but at a vertical cross-section of the earth, a slice-through of geological layers, where the figures don't stand up in space, but lie, as in an upright grave, tightly packed in soil and seams of rock and water. The very shape of the picture, that deep narrow oblong, suggests a shaft sunk into the ground rather than a view.
View or cross section? The point is, you can't say. And to disorientate things more, the surroundings have so many features, eddying forms, floaters, fissures, flat areas, that are simply unidentifiable. …