Exhibition: Rude Britannia British Comic Art

I can’t remember the last time I went to Tate Britain, or why I went there (although I do remember seeing David Walliams at the same exhibition; it’s funny the things you remember), so it was nice to visit it again. Rude Britannia: British Comic Art, brought to people’s attention by the fact that Harry Hill was a guest curator of the exhibition and a nice piece on The Culture Show, is about British satirical art from the 1600s to the present day.

The exhibit is contained in six rooms, including Politics, Social Satire, Bawdy and Absurd (the latter a collection of surreal items curated by Harry Hill, the funniest being the anvil hanging from a rope with a fake candle underneath the rope as you enter, something done by Hill himself). It tries to cover the full scope in a roughly chronological order, starting with the father of satirical art, Hogarth (works here include the famous Gin’s Lane and Rake’s Progress), and finishing up with modern proponents such as Gerald Scarfe, Steve Bell and the Spitting Image team (seeing a life-size puppet of Margaret Thatcher, with those big bulging eyes, was really quite scary, even after all this time).

I don’t know if the exhibition is a success – I don’t think that it covers everything, trying to include as wide a selection as possible but spreading too thin. And there are some very strange inclusions: a recutting of scenes from Carry On Up The Khyber, overdubbed with two Gujarati men talking about obscene sex acts; video of a woman in her back garden, eating a banana with a fork and knife; a badly drawn bearded man’s face, with the word ‘HA’ written many times beneath it; a large fat suit with no head. It is rather odd, but perhaps that’s the point.

There is a lot to admire in the exhibit. There is the massive painting, The Worship of Bacchus, by George Cruikshank, a work satirising the deleterious effect of alcohol on British society. It’s a huge work, made up of many different sections and levels, and needs annotating by Steve Bell from Cruikshank’s own notes. There are some huge comic book pages of Viz strips, specially done for the exhibition, mocking those who visit art galleries – there are accompanying strips of Roger Mellie explaining the Hogarth pieces, which are necessary for the gap of history, and I found these more amusing than a lot of the exhibition. There are also individual little pieces that made me smile and were worth seeing, but I didn’t leave the museum feeling completely satisfied by what I had seen; however, it was at least interesting.

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