- The Washington Times - Friday, March 31, 2006

LONDON — Cartoons can be shocking, as illustrated by the fierce protests that erupted around the world when a Danish newspaper published ones depicting the prophet Muhammad.

Their shock value was equally strong in the 18th century, when visitors to London often were startled to see pictures lampooning the royal family — a freedom unknown in much of Europe.

An exhibition opening today at the Museum of London celebrates the British capital’s role as an epicenter of visual satire for more than 300 years. From 18th-century engravings to 21st-century Internet spoofs, Londoners like nothing better than to laugh at their leaders, their neighbors and themselves.

“It’s always been a supremely popular art form — looked down on by the art world but adored by the public,” the exhibition’s curator, Mark Bills, said during a preview Tuesday.

Satirical cartooning evolved from a fusion of British satirical printing and the grotesque portraits of Italian “caricatura.” The exhibition charts its progress from 18th-century cartoons displayed in print-shop windows through cartoons in 19th-century magazines such as Punch and the TV puppet show “Spitting Image,” which mocked politicians and celebrities during the 1980s and 1990s.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, London was unique in Europe in artists’ freedom to criticize royalty and politicians — a tradition that continues in the satirical hammering given to modern prime ministers such as Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.

One of the most recent pieces in the show is a 2005 newspaper cartoon about binge drinking that shows Mr. Blair as proprietor of a pub called the Leaky Ship. One of the most evocative is the latex head of Mrs. Thatcher familiar to millions of “Spitting Image” viewers.

The “Iron Lady,” whose divisive policies transformed the British economy at the cost of tens of thousands of jobs, was the target of savage satire throughout her 11-year tenure. Now 80 and having suffered a series of small strokes, Mrs. Thatcher rarely appears in public. Her daughter, Carol, who attended the show’s Tuesday preview, said her mother has kept a thick skin about satirists’ ridicule.

“If you go into politics, you hold yourself up as target practice,” Carol Thatcher said.

Some of the items in the museum’s show are great works of art, such as William Hogarth’s “A Rake’s Progress,” which depicts a rich young man’s descent into madness through indolence and vice. Others are odd bits of memorabilia, including teapots and Toby jugs, a Margaret Thatcher-shaped coffee mug (with her husband, Denis, forming the handle) and bedroom slippers depicting Prince Charles and Princess Diana.

Many exhibits reveal how little London has changed. Hogarth’s raucous drunks could be today’s drinkers in 18th-century garb, while George Cruikshank’s teeming 19th-century street scenes abound with what politicians now call “anti-social behavior.”

The show includes Hogarth’s “Gin Lane” — a depiction of alcohol-caused illness and poverty — as well as modern cartoons inspired by it. In Martin Rowson’s 2001 spinoff, it became “Cocaine Lane.”

Many of the images use satire to skewer the rich and powerful or expose the suffering of the poor, but some of the older exhibits make uncomfortable viewing. There are stereotyped images of foppish Frenchmen, gluttonous Germans, caricatured Jewish traders, drunken Irishmen and dour Scots.

Mr. Bills said that though satire can push for change, it also sometimes “reinforces popular opinion and prejudices.”

The protests sparked by the Danish images of Muhammad show that cartoons still can offend and that the tradition of free speech can have violent consequences.

Mr. Bills said the anger is nothing new. Satire often has been seen as immoral, even criminal, and satirists frequently have ended up in court.

“There have always been taboos,” he said. “I don’t think satirists have ever had complete freedom. There are always out-of-bounds things.”

“Satirical London” runs through Sept. 3 at the Museum of London, and will not travel.

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