Artists: Notes on Art Making

In the aftermath of the recent seminar ‘Punchline -- Cartoons against Communalism’ by SAHMAT, art critic Santo Datta wonders at the naïve inability of participating cartoonists to comprehend their historic role at a time when cartoons are becoming central to social research.

At SAHMAT’S seminar in the capital on Cartoonists Against Communalism, on the significant day of 30 January, during the general discussion on cartooning and its social context, I had attempted to present a paper on the importance of the social-political cartoon as a repository of the history of our times. This, intriguingly, did not seem to interest the battery of young and veteran cartoonists present on the occasion -- led by Abu Abraham and R.K. Laxman, who, respectively chaired the morning and post-noon sessions.

It was stunning to be told, halfway through my presentation, by Abu Abraham of all people, to cut it short to allow other speakers. It was a revelation for me that the cartoonists themselves were not interested in knowing about the historical significance of their role as artists.

But then, even the historians and social scientists of our times have so far only ignored, for their analysis and study, the political and social markers contained in cartoons. This is surprising because cartoons comprise a mass of excellent visual material illuminating the bewildering cross-currents of ideas and events, carrying within them the very pulsation of their times. As a body of insight, they are lying wasted, ignored and unused, in the bellowing files of newspapers and periodicals. Their closed-circuit topicality and has never been given the historical context where they can again become eloquent mirrors of their times.

Not that researchers do not take recourse to the very same files for historical facts and information, for documenting contemporary events. They do. Yet, I wonder how they miss the invaluable nuggets of political and social insights encapsulated in cartoons which can help shed light on significant moments of our contemporary history. Consider how could grasp the historians’ analysis of say, the turbulent twenties, thirties and forties in India by ‘reading’ between the lines of the cartoonists who occupy the special position of being our visual historians.

Are our scholars short-sighted in their exclusive respect for the printed word? Or are we, generally speaking, deficient in ‘visual literacy’ and, therefore, unable to the language of lines? Or, are we generally speaking deficient in ‘visual literacy’ and, therefore, unable to respond to the language of lines? Or do we unconsciously categorise the daily newspaper cartoon as the inevitable ephemera churned out in the print-media, as something lacking seriousness, something not ‘intellectual’ enough?

The enormous importance of cartoons and illustrations as a window to our times is evident from G.M Trevelven’s Illustrated English Social History, William Hogarth’s venomous caricatures have been used again and again in numerous social histories of 18th century England.

The mordant political cartoons of the anti-monarchist Honore Daumier (1808-1874) are still invaluable historical material for the social and political history of 19th century France. His hard-hitting cartoons, lithographed in the radical paper La Caricature, were considered by the aberrant establishment as “the cat’s paw of rabble-rousers; and political cowards shook in their boots at the sight of (Daumier’s) masterpieces of slaughter.” Once Daumier took a particularly hot shot at King Louis Philippe and was promptly sent to prison for six months. Daumier showed the king as a royal Gargantua swallowing moneybags stolen from the people.

Just imagine if way back in 1885, while prefacing the third German edition of Karl Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Friedrich Engels had included some of the choicest Daumier cartoons! He did not. But many later historians of the period found it impossible to ignore Daumier.

In her The Proud Tower: A Portrait of The World before The War, 1890-1914, Barbara W. Tuchman used the paintings of John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) portraying the aristocracy, drawings of Theophile Steinlen responding to the plight of the working class, and photographs of Jacob A. Riis to show How the Other Half Lived.

The political cartoons of David Low (1891-1963) and Sydney Strube just before and during the Second World War are indispensible in writing the history of modern Britain, and no historian of the First World War will forget the cartoons of Bruce Bairnsfeather that showed soldiers drowning in the muddy trenches in France -- the other view of the many-splendoured war heroes.

Our political and social historians have not searched the old files of Shanker’s Weekly; their analyses of the Nehru-Lal Bahadur-Indira eras is not supported by the cartoons, for instance, of Laxman or Abu, as solid historical material. Sociologists and historians of culture have not considered how much of the problematic of the crisis in contemporary social and moral values has been poignantly revealed in the apparently humorous cartoons of Sudhir Dar and Mario de Miranda.

At the formal opening of the ‘Centre for the Study of Cartoons and Caricature’ at the University of Kent in 1975, Professor Ernst Gombrich, the art historian, told the audience that the cartoon’s job is to “solidify the elusive flux of events that cartoonists are encapsulating in their day-to-day work. But we do not yet have, in our country, any such institution for the serious study of cartoon and caricature.

The political cartoonist places the familiar and much-respected in impossible situations and re-interprets the heavy weights, pricking their balloons of vanity and pride, criticising the rhetoric of their sky-high promises, revealing the hidden nexus between the politicos and the underworld. For obvious reasons, daily political cartoons were unknown in the newspapers of Nazi Germany, and the same absence has been noted in mainstream newspapers of other totalitarian states.

It is amazing how much our views and understanding of the world has been shaped by the cartoonists and press photographers. It is the cartoonists who simplify and visually project the amorphous and inarticulate anger, censor and elation in the public mind, not sparing the powers that be, in the context of the burning issues of the day.

And the fact that cartoonists do pack a punch in our times was brought home to me rather ironically the other day, when I was strolling through SAHMAT’S exhibition of anti-communal cartoons at the AIFACS gallery in the capital. I came across a gentleman from police headquarters, assiduously taking down the names of cartoonists displayed in the panels. Now, who could be afraid of these poor cartoonists at the Headquarters?

Published in The Economic Times, February 1994
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