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May 5, 2010

Cartoon Caricatures Over the Centuries

If you think that we’re unkind about politicians, celebrities and the Royal Family these days, then you should look at some of the cartoon caricatures of centuries past.

Take the case, for instance, of George Cruikshank, an eighteenth century British painter of caricature portraits and prints that mercilessly ridiculed members of parliament and of the government and that attacked the then Royal Family.  It’s said that in 1820 he was bribed to the tune of £100 – a huge amount of money in those days, simply not to create caricatures of George III, who was then king and was easily mocked.

Despite this generous financial incentive, Cruikshank created prints and other images that ridiculed and satirised public life for popular magazines and pamphlets such as The Comic Almanack and Omnibus.  He was also an illustrator for the novelist Charles Dickens amongst other writers.

Later, on the other side of the Atlantic, Thomas Nast was credited for cutting American politicians down to size with is pen and paintbrush.  He is also considered to be the creator of the Democratic Party’s donkey and the Republican elephant and, even, Father Christmas.

More recently Gerald Scarfe and Steve Bell in Britain and Sebastian Kruger in Germany have been celebrated – and attacked in equal measure – for their pictures which puncture the pompous and poke fun at our leaders.

But cartoon caricatures are not purely destructive and negative – they can summarise what many are thinking, getting to the heart of issue more effectively than journalists, writers columnists.  They can express anger, outrage but also amusement and affection in a way that is immediate and striking if they are done with real skill, insight and wit.

Caricature cartoons can use images as a metaphor to make a point in a way that creators of the written word often cannot – after all, as they way, a picture paints a thousand words.

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