March 29, 2006

London exhibit showcases long history of satire

By Leah Eichler

LONDON (Reuters) - Caricatures are meant to provoke -- and
sometimes they can turn deadly, as the furor surrounding the
Prophet Mohammed cartoons has shown.

But London satirists today tend to attack prejudice itself,
says Mark Bills, curator of "Satirical London," a new exhibit
at the Museum of London.

The exhibit, which opens on April 1 and runs until
September 3, examines the long history of satire in the city,
with over 350 images from the last three centuries.

One example is an caricature of a memorial to Jean Charles
de Menezes -- the Brazilian electrician shot dead last year at
a London underground station by police officers who suspected
him of being a suicide bomber.

The image features rifles arranged like a bouquet of
flowers and a sign that reads: "You looked a bit Middle
Eastern, son."

Highlights of the exhibit include the first cartoon ever
published in Punch magazine in 1843 and an authentic store
front of Mrs. Humphrey's, a noted 18th century print shop.


The targets of satire have been consistent throughout the
years -- politics, the monarchy, the Church and the art
establishment -- although attitudes toward them have varied
over time.

Politicians have always been in the firing line.

Puppet heads, including ones of former Prime Minister
Margaret Thatcher and the Queen Mother from the television show
"Spitting Image," will be the most recognizable images in the

The show, which ended in 1996 after a 12-year run, featured
unflattering puppet heads of popular politicians and
international figures.

"It's part of the territory when you're a politician," said
Bills. "It's a sign of vanity and ego if you can't take the

He said that although the artistic merit of the satirists
was quite high, many felt excluded by the art world and were
metaphorically banging at the window of the Royal Academy.

"There was a great divide between those considered artists
and satirists. High art in this period (18th and 19th century)
was about lofty ideals whereas satire was very much about
reality and every day imperfections," said Bills.

Because of this great divide, many caricaturists aspired to
be more traditional artists in order to gain the recognition
they thought they deserved -- but most did not succeed.

Although there are only a couple of historic religious
caricatures in the exhibit, Bills points out that the vitriol
of London satirists often focused on other city stereotypes,
such as bankers, alcoholics and prostitutes.

"If you have a look at national stereotypes, a big thing in
satire, those could be very prejudiced viewpoints," he said.

The Danish cartoon riots showed how powerful satire can be.

"There are always taboos," he said. "Sometimes the only way
you can tell the line is by treading around it."