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December 02, 2004

Grin and Blair It - Cartoons of Tony Blair

Posted by Christie Davies

Grin and Blair It - Cartoons of Tony Blair
Cartoon Art Trust Museum
7-13 The Brunswick Centre, Bernard Street, London, WC1
9th November - 18th December 2004
Tuesday to Saturday 10am - 5pm

The earliest portrayals of Tony Blair in cartoons go back to the early 1980s but until 1994 they are of little interest. They do not look like him, nor do they create a memorable image of him and some of them are by men more characterised by bitterness than by an ability to draw. Blair's early deriders came from the class of fossils that still cling to the long defunct world of Clause 4, nationalisation, infinite welfare, bog-dismal comprehensives and treating criminals as victims. At that time they needed a scapegoat even though their world had collapsed from within long before Blair. Blair can take no credit for the death of socialism, the credit belongs to others or perhaps like an anti-Topsy it just shrank.

Blair was in fact far more of a threat to the Conservatives and this was captured brilliantly by Nicholas Garland in 1994 in a scene from Othello. A young and sprightly Blair in doublet, hose and ruff flirts in the light of the day with a pretty female Tory voter. Under a dark arch in a cloak and drab clothing stands John Major hued as a black and woolly haired Moor looking worried. Iago whispers to him "Look to your wife – observe her well with Cassio". It was a prescient cartoon as we have all found out.

In another cartoon of 1994 Garland portrayed Blair togatus sum as Mark Anthony with the corpse of the 1945 Welfare State in front of him wrapped in a shroud. "Friends, Romans and countrymen, I have come to bury Caesar not to praise him". Garland's readers will no doubt have known the references but one hopes that they were not too familiar with the intricacies of the plots. The thought of John Major smothering a Tory voter as pretty as Edwina or a mob of enraged Bevanites trying to attack skinny Kinnock does not bear thinking about.

Many of the cartoons draw upon a striking use of artistic as well as literary references. In 1996 Martin Rowson placed Clinton (as the husband) and Blair holding hands in Jan van Eyck's The Amalfi Portrait. All solemnity is gone and the wifely Blair grins and simpers with horse-like teeth. Van Eyck's chandelier has become a battery of microphones and the pet dog has been transformed into a large pig with a cigar and a "Wall Street capitalist" top hat $ sign. In the background a picture or mirror shows the witch-like features of Thatcher and Reagan and the inscription "No Representation without Low-Taxation".

In 1999 Dave Brown drew Blair along with Gerry Adams and David Trimble for the Sunday Times as Picasso's The Three Dancers singing "You put your left footer in, your red hand out, in out, in out… Darn you need to be a contortionist". Adams is painted tricolerically in green, white and orange with both eyes on one side of his face, his mouth open in a scream. Adams' familiar over-black hair and hard, sharp hatchet-like profile dominate the picture. With one hand he holds Trimble's Ulster-red hand. Tony Blair holds both their other hands as they whirl around. Trimble is not as vivid as screaming Gerry; he is a mere assemblage of union flag, orangeman's sash and bowler and is clearly in retreat as an aggressive Adams manipulates an unmemorable Blair.

The funniest cartoons of 1997 are those of Graham High in The Scotsman and Chris Riddell in The Observer. High perfected The Blair Smile as a grid of lips and teeth standing alone and gleaming with victory. To be safe the artist had also drawn a never to be published picture of the same smile with the teeth fractured and crumbling just in case Blair lost. I know how Graham High felt. Just before the 1992 election I gave the Western Mail two articles about the Welsh windbag Neil Kinnock, one explaining why he had lost the election and another, the one they didn't use, saying why his victory had been inevitable. Apart from that the articles were identical.

Chris Riddell shows Blair emerging post-1997 like a jack in the box from Clinton's fly as if he were Clinton's member come to greet Monica. Blair grins in triumph like a maniac while Clinton smiles quietly like a genial potato. A shabby mother and child marked "welfare" are unimpressed. The organisers note that senior Labour party figures complained to The Observer about this cartoon. Yet it is very well drawn and surprisingly not in bad taste.

This is more than can be said of Steve Bell's cartoon showing Blair with a Holy Ghost-like dove of peace hovering over him standing between a vicious-looking Gerry Adams and a stubborn and resolute Orangeman – Trimble and brutally grabbing both of them by the privates to coerce them into a settlement.

By the end of the twentieth century a definite recognizable picture of Blair had emerged stressing not just his prominent smile and eyes but also his Prince Charles ears, his Norman Lamont (also an old boy of Fettes, the public school for those who want to become ex-Scotsmen) demonic eyebrows and that receding Blairline that has left him with just a wild quifty tuft in the centre. The same basic image appears in cartoons as diverse as that of Richard Wilson (2001) who makes him look like a cross between Gulliver in Lilliput and a benign satan and Mark Reeve's (2002) depiction of him poking up cheekily from Mr Lakshmi Mittal's jacket pocket. All we see of Mittal, Britain's wealthiest Indian, and possibly wealthiest man, is the lapel and breast pocket of his expensive business-striped suit. From the pocket the top half of Mr Blair protrudes; with hands clasped unctuously in a very Blair gesture he looks up in smug adoration at the unseen face of the donor. Reeve has given Blair a red tie, lips, nose and cheeks to contrast both with Blair's bright blue jacket and Mittal's sober one, so that once again he looks like a silly little jack in the box in the interstices of a more powerful person.

Yet the best drawn cartoon of this time is Trog's black and white sketch of Ken Livingstone as a boxer punching Blair dressed as a natty boxing referee in the face. In the foreground lies poor old Frank Dobson knocked out and seeing stars after losing the fight to be Mayor of London. A minimal use of a few oblique hatched lines have captured for ever the well known, oval, white-whiskered all round face of the loser. Poor old Dobbo, to be captured for eternity as an albino coconut, shyed off its perch by the brutal, ruthless Livingstone.

It is good that the organisers have also been able to obtain cartoons from foreign publications. Peter Shranek of Le Monde has Blair with a long black Pinochio nose shaped like a missile and labelled WMD, though it has to be said the features are those of Rhodes Boyson without the sideburns not Blair.

Jeff Danziger in The Chicago Tribune of 29 January 2004 had a cartoon marked "Mr Blair is recalled to life by the Hutton Report". In a room whose door is marked "British political morgue", cold corpses are kept in long deep filing-cabinet drawers along the walls and storeyed high. Here are closets labeled Major, Heseltine, Hague, Callaghan, IDS etc., the repositaries of men still more or less in existence but whose political lives are over. Blair's resting place slides open to reveal him with a label marked Hutton Report tied to his toe. He begins to rise from his mortuary drawer saying "And I want an apology". His essential features have been captured by Danziger but he looks uncomfortably like a cross between Donald Rumsfeld and the Queen.

Representing foreign politicians in cartoons is tricky because the reader often neither knows what they look like nor the conventions that have grown up in their own country as to how they should be depicted. How many people in England would have recognized cartoons of the former Finnish political leader Kekkonen, even though his hexagonal face and the tiny crown on his head were very distinctive. For an American Blair and the leaders of Slovenia or Luxemburg are much the same. Politics is still largely conducted within the nation state and visual appearances are conveyed by local television. Unless a foreign leader has a bizarre appearance like de Gaulle or Arafat then the cartoonist has to write their names under their feet or next to their heads. You do not need to do this for domestic politicians, which is what makes foreign political cartoons at times difficult to follow. I only understood the Kekkonen cartoons because Lauri Lehtimaja, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Finland was kind enough to explain them to me. This was why Danziger's cartoon of Blair requires so much more verbal explanation than most of the British ones which often work through visual images alone. Alas poor Dobbo we knew you well.

Reiner Hockfeld's cartoon of Blair of 20 June 2004 in Neues Deutschland should be a lesson to us all. In it Blair shows the European Constitution to a British lion wearing a union jack hat. The lion is in a bad way. He has a patch stitched on his back, the end of his tail is tied on with string and he looks at the document feebly through spectacles with a vacant, senile gaze. At first I was surprised by this hostile Hassenlied portrait of Britain so uncharacteristic of the modest, kindly Germans and then I realised the harsh economic factors that must lie behind this new image. Last year Germany for the first time since last time overtook Britain as an exporter of armaments and is now in fourth place in the world after America, Russia and France. In future when African or Middle Eastern despots attack their neighbours or suppress uprisings by their oppressed citizens they will kill with weapons supplied from Essen not Birmingham. Their victims will get Solingen up them not Sheffield.

The Grin and Blair It exhibition is well worth a visit. It is better and more varied than previous accounts of it have allowed. The portrayal of Blair in cartoons has not been a simple slide from Bambi to the Steve Bell cartoon of him with one mad sci-fi eye used in the poster advertising it. On the contrary the exhibition allows you to see and tries to explain the work of many of our most skilled and erudite cartoonists getting their harpoons into Blair.

Professor Christie Davies is the author of The Mirth of Nations, Transaction Publishers, 2002.

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Those who do not known much about German newspapers may wish to know that Neues Deutschland - the German paper that Christie Davies mentions - was the official paper of the SED - the governing Communist Party in East Germany. It is now closely associated with the PDS - the successor party of the SED.

Posted by: Willi at December 2, 2004 09:56 PM
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