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April 21, 2005

The War-Time Cartoons of Mario Armengol at the Political Cartoon Gallery

Posted by Christie Davies

Through Spanish Eyes: The War-Time Cartoons of Mario Armengol
The Political Cartoon Gallery
32 Store Street, London, WC1E 7BS
23rd February - 19th May 2005
Monday to Friday 9am - 5.30pm, Saturday 11am - 5.30pm
Free Admission

The cartoons of the Anglo-Catalan Mario Armengol from World War II are among the most politically incorrect you will ever see. He regularly depicted the Germans and the Japanese as animals and is particularly good at distorting foreign faces to make their possessors look like monkeys. His work would make today's hypocritical "anti-racists" scream with rage. Likewise one of the favourite settings for his cartoons is the bombed out ruin of a German or Japanese city; he does not shrink from gloating at the enemy's destruction. But then, he was an immigrant, wasn't he. Let us render homage to Catalunya.

During the Second World War it was strictly forbidden to make jokes on the subject of bombing on BBC radio. In May 1944 the loveable, if at times incomprehensible, Yorkshire comedian, Wilfred Pickles (give 'im the money Mabel) cracked the gag:

Here is a German news bulletin: three of our night fighters and two of our cities are missing.
The Director-General himself, Bill Haley, came down like a Permian comet to condemn the joke and the fact that it had been broadcast. Carpet bombing and fire storm bombing were, he declared:
to be performed as coldly and scientifically as a surgical operation.
They were not to be a subject for jests. Take that line and you can justify anything, however wicked. Many of us would with hindsight see the bombing of the German and Japanese cities as both an ineffective way of winning the war and a war crime. Radhabinod Pal, the Indian judge and only international lawyer at the war-crimes trial of the Japanese leadership was particularly eloquent on this point. You can not disguise this by using the cheap and hypocritical language of a medical metaphor and wasting your time in banning jokes when you have more important matters to attend to. Humbug, Sir William, you wretched ancestor of Dirt and Byke.

By contrast Armengol does not mess about. His cartoon It's one of ours shows two weedy, uniformed civilians with Nazi armbands standing in a ruined city close to a fractured lamp post that is leaning from the vertical and then leaning again at the fracture. A burning German fighter falls out of the sky leaving a trail of smoke across the only corner of the cartoon not shaped by hollow eyed ruins.

In I was crazy about you, Hitler and Goering are shown in a recently bombed out city. Hitler lies on his face under an upside down table in the ruins, his papers and waste-paper basket scattered round him looking up at Goering. The head of the Luftwaffe, Goering, a huge black hulk set off by his white bull of a face and his vast white lapels stands with his back to Hitler and the ruins, unable to speak or to face him. His tiny scared eyes look uneasily backwards round the side of his head at what has happened. It is a masterpiece in the use of blocks of black and white. Similar images are used in the bombed out landscape Seeds of Peace and Goering's bulk (another topic the BBC considered banishing from radio humour on the grounds that it was stoutist) is also the focus of It's called Luftersatzwaffe.

Armengol displays the bombed out German cities as chimney teeth and window eyes rugged against the sky. Japan is shown as a traditional ideal landscape with a high-arched bridge, cherry blossom, a tile-ridged house and Torii. But above are the massed planes of the US Air Force.

In Hell, another earthquake, Hideki Tojo is shown raging on the shore as the planes roar across the Japanese coast. Tojo has the legs of a frog not a man and another Japanese, entirely depicted as a frog, crouches at his feet. Everything is lightly drawn, except for the black sea and small black touches such as the jet black bands around Tojo's cap and collar. The Japanese are reduced to sub-human amphibians and their exquisite, delicate country is about to be destroyed from the air. They are likewise debased in So What? – says the Honourable Brute, where a brutal, simian Japanese with a head like a misshapen coconut, missing forehead and a long mouth running the whole width of his face is shown beating a tied up prisoner with a length of bamboo. "Anti-Asian racism" squeak the politically correct but I doubt if the Chinese or the Koreans visiting the exhibition will see it that way.

In any case Armengol applies the same technique to the Germans in Cheer up the Enemy is Showing Signs of War Weakness in which Goebbels is giving a pep talk to a crowd of stooping, dejected, worn out German soldiers and civilians. The eyes of the soldier at the edge of the crowd are hidden under his Teutonic steel helmet and his nose is but a button. Most of his face consists of his long upper lip stretched between the base of his nose and the low mouth. His arms are too long and his back is bent so that his hands nearly reach the floor. They are a crowd of defeated monkeys.

Quite frankly who cares? The Anglo-Americans ought to look back in horror at their own actions in destroying Hamburg and Dresden, Tokyo and Osaka but the connection between death from the sky and the demonising of the enemy in the cartoons is tenuous and remote. It was possible for a civilised people to destroy hundreds of cities and millions of civilians including young children by aerial bombardment not because they were seen as frogs and apes in the cartoons but because they could not be seen at all. What the British won't do with a bayonet, they will happily do with a bomb. They will calmly murder women and children provided they don't have to watch. Eating people is wrong but fried Hamburgers for breakfast is fine. Let the fox die of gangrene or slow poisoning so long as there are no fox-hunters present. Thus speaks the BBC.

Armengol knew that the world was a ruthless place. He had escaped from Spain into France in 1939 when Franco won the Spanish Civil War, only to be told by the French that, unless he joined the French Foreign Legion, he would be sent back to face probable execution. The French have a way with refugees. Besides, how else can they get people to fight for France? Armengol was then sent to Narvik to fight alongside the British expeditionary force and when they were forced to leave Norway, he ended up in Liverpool, the lowest point in his career. Fortunately, the British Ministry of Information recognised his talent and he became one of Britain's leading wartime cartoonists, adding captions to his drawings in English, French and Spanish.

The one Spanish cartoon on display here El Regenerador of 25th June 1941, published three days after the Germans had invaded Russia, is hilarious; it shows Hitler as Popeye with a Nazi cap over his eye, muscled arms and a swastika on his vest. Hitler's familiar face is twisted round to form a Popeye mouth with a corncob pipe for that "race poison" tobacco clenched in it. In his hand is a revivifying can of Espinacas Rusas.

This is one of the few Armengol cartoons that the organisers have been able to date precisely. Another is The Jilted Bridegroom, 30th November 1942, three days après le suicide de la flotte française, showing Hitler in admiral's uniform leaning on his telescope on the quay in Toulon, looking out at the circling ripples in the empty sea that indicate where the French fleet has been scuttled to prevent him seizing it. It is a scene cleverly framed by the cranes of Toulon harbour. There is an irony about the uniform, for it was Hitler's failure to understand sea power that lost him the French fleet and lost him the war. When the French surrendered in 1940, the British sank the French fleet in Oran but some ships escaped to join the other French fleet in Toulon which sat in harbour under French control for two years. When the Americans invaded the French colonies in North Africa in 1942, the Germans moved to seize the Toulon fleet but for once they failed to act with their usual speed and effectiveness. The Germans were uncharacteristically slow and clumsy in gaining the harbour giving even the reluctant and ambivalent French time to open their cocks and let in the sea. Hitler lost his bride, a valuable Mediterranean fleet that under German command would have caused severe difficulties for the Royal Navy.

Not surprisingly given his experiences, Armengol is harsh on Vichy. The Coming Civil War shows Pétain hunched in greatcoat and French military trousers with senile wrinkles and bedraggled moustache walking with the squinting, squit-faced Laval in his jet black coat and pinstripes. Both clutch their coat flaps together against a cold wind as they stumble past the ruins of France. Behind them is an angry, scowling, pregnant with civil war Marianne. Her face is despair hardening into hatred and Laval and Pétain dare not look back at her. Armengol, the Catalan, knew only too well what a civil war would bring. The injustice and bloodshed of collaboration were about to be replaced by the injustice and bloodshed of the Ēpuration, when personal and political scores were settled violently and arbitrarily in the French manner.

Mario Armengol's masterpiece, though, is The Fakir wants Comfort. It shows Gandhi looking ambiguously at a bed of nails marked "Made in Japan" which has just been delivered by a Japanese officer in uniform. Behind Gandhi is a clean white bed with bright white headboard marked "Made in England". The background is black but streaming down like stalactites of blood. It is, of course, an echo of the greatest of Britain's war-leaders Winston Churchill's famous description of Gandhi in 1930 as:

posing as a fakir…. striding half-naked….. to parley on equal terms with the representative of the king-emperor.
Unlike that other Indian national hero, Netaji (Führer) Chandra Bose who organised an Indian army to fight for the Japanese, Gandhi did not wish India to become part of their Asian co-prosperity sphere. He had seen how the Japanese had raped, looted and murdered during their ruthless conquest of China, something Indians today tend to down-play in order to make their own mild sufferings under the king-emperors appear more oppressive. Indeed it is the basis of the new Indian-Japanese understanding, Hindi-Nippy bhai bhai. Yet Gandhian non-violence could only work because the British lacked the cruelty and fanaticism of the Japanese; it would not have been much use at the rape of Nanking. Gandhi was unable to see that if the British had "Quit India" in the middle of the war as he demanded, it would inevitably have led to the conquest of India by Japan. Bombay would have become another Nanking, New Delhi another Seoul and respectable Brahmin ladies comfort girls for the kempetai; a bed of nails indeed. As it was the British drew up a constitution for an independent India in Gandhi's absence. For Armengol Gandhi was, as the Daily Worker used to say, "objectively" on the side of the Japanese; his crumpled, grumpy, uncomprehending face in the cartoon shows exactly what Armengol thought of him.

Armengol, like Zec, another great British war-time cartoonist and one who depicted the Nazis as snakes, vultures, toads and monkeys, was more to the point than those cartoonists who merely represented them and their Japanese counterparts as buffoons. In the end it all depends on what the cartoonist wishes to achieve. If he is aiming at humour, then it is best for him to represent his targets as buffoons, even at the risk of rendering them harmless, even amiable. It doesn't matter because cartoons have no measurable effect anyway. However, if the cartoon is simply an illustration of an argument used during a desperate political conflict, then the cartoonist may as well go for snakes and vultures. He will not have any significant effect, so it difficult to see why he need exercise any restraint. He will not make us laugh but this is no longer his intention. He is simply reflecting the nastiness of the real material world with its sticks and stones and worse.

Professor Christie Davies is the author of The Mirth of Nations, 2002 and of many academic articles on the significance of humour in war-time.

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I think George Orwell would not have considered political cartoons of no effect. To quote from '1984':

"Rutherford had once been a famous caricaturist, whose brutal cartoons had helped to inflame popular opinion before and during the Revolution. Even now [after his arrest], at long intervals, his cartoons were appearing in the Times. They were simply an imitation of his earlier manner, and curiously lifeless and unconvincing."

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at April 26, 2005 06:26 PM

Christie Davies,
My name is Aly wells, I'm 17 and studying the idea of humour in war for 12th grade English in Australia. I have quoted your peice in an essay I have written but I am interested in where I could find the cartoons by Mario Armengol. You've discribed them here but I have searched tirelessly and have not been able to view these for myself. If you could help me with my studies I would be very appreciative.
Thankyou. Aly

Posted by: Aly wells at May 27, 2007 08:03 AM
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