Magazine article The Spectator

Game for a Laugh

Magazine article The Spectator

Game for a Laugh

Article excerpt

Rude Britannia: British Comic Art

Tate Britain, until 5 September

If each age gets the art it deserves, it might also be said that each age gets the exhibitions it deserves. The robust tradition of British Comic Art has never looked so unfunny and anaemic as it does in this current overworked examination at Tate Millbank. My visit coincided with some voluble OAPs up from the country, a know-it-all guide manque and a couple of solemn Americans who were evidently seeking enlightenment as to the strange habits of this island race. There were sighs aplenty but I'd reached Room 3 before I heard a single laugh, and this response was directed (not surprisingly) at a video screen and headphones replaying old episodes of Spitting Image . The problem is that if humour has to be explained, it very often ceases to be funny. And nowadays, curators nearly always get wrong what should be explained and what shouldn't.

The first room is supposed to function as an introduction to the subject, and in this role it mixes the historical with the contemporary - Hogarth with Klega, H.M. Bateman with Wenceslaus Hollar, Rowlandson with Glen Baxter and Leo Baxendale of the Beano . There are some fine things here, as well as some dull ones, but the audience closely resembled Thomas Patch's 'Gathering of Dilettanti in a Sculpture Hall' - the common lack of interest was all too evident. I liked the juxtaposition of Carole Windham's ceramic figure group 'Obadiah, Mastrr of Bursley' (2000), with its 19thcentury Staffordshire bull-baiting prototype. (At least the little dog laughed. ) And hanging Gillray next to Donald Parsnips's Daily Journal news-stand was an inspired move. Then there's the wonderfully unfunny 'Laughing Parson' (inevitably reading Punch ) by Charles Spencelayh, and cabinets of illustrations by Leech and Tenniel. But it doesn't add up, and there's no curatorial attempt at cohesion.

But in room two, the other extreme is reached and swiftly found as wanting. Here a series of supposedly witty but excruciating captions from Viz 's character Roger Mellie ('The Man on the Telly') offers a limping commentary on Hogarth's famous print sequence, 'A Rake's Progress'. As a joke it backfires seriously. Hogarth, who made great art, deserves to be seen unmediated by such triviality. If you can ignore the intrusive captions, enjoy the potent Rowlandsons and a marvellous series of increasingly elaborate and surreal-looking 18th-century headdresses, depicted by the likes of Philip Dawe and Samuel Hieronymus Grimm.

The next subject to take the organisers' attention is politics, treated in an equally crass way in room 3. Here we encounter such giants of caricature as Ralph Steadman, intent on portraying politicians by their legs only, Gerald Scarfe, Steve Bell, a solitary Max Beerbohm, and off to the side is a sitting room where you can take your ease - should this fatuous exhibition have exhausted you prematurely - and chat or look at books. Room 4 is supposedly devoted to the bawdy but, after a good start with the saucy seaside postcards of Donald McGill, it declines through Beryl Cook to Carry On Up the Khyber dubbed with Gujurati obscenities. Somehow I don't think Bernard Bresslaw and Kenneth Williams would see the funny side of that. Enough. The exhibition peters out via Cruikshank's ambitious painting 'The Worship of Bacchus' - totally out of place here - and a room of mostly tedious absurdities. …

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