A Brief History of Political Cartoons

Volume 12, Issue 3  | 
Published 01/03/2016

Knife-edged and salient, there is no simpler or more effective form of journalism than the editorial or political cartoon. The message – usually critical – is instantaneous, and often funny.

Political cartoons (from cartone, the Italian word for “pasteboard.”) are for the most part composed of two elements: caricature, which parodies the individual, and allusion, which creates the situation or context into which the individual is placed. Caricature as a Western discipline goes back to Leonardo da Vinci’s artistic explorations of “the ideal type of deformity”— the grotesque— which he used to better understand the concept of ideal beauty. Over time, the principles of form established in part by Leonardo had become so ingrained into the method of portraiture that artists like Agostino and Annibale Carracci rebelled against them. Intended to be lighthearted satires, their caricaturas were, in essence, “counter-art”.

The Italian masters used pasteboard for rough drawings (cartoni), which were especially useful in preparing frescoes and tapestries. The word did not come to mean “an amusing sketch” until the 1840s when Prince Albert, who wanted to decorate the walls of the new Houses of Parliament in London with frescoes, opened a competition for their design. The cartoons for the frescoes, some of them absurd in their attempts to appear heroic, were exhibited in 1843 and parodied shortly thereafter in the English magazine Punch, thus earning the word its present meaning.

The sketch of “A Captain of Pope Urban VIII” is representative of the new genre in that it is a quick, impressionistic drawing that exaggerates prominent physical characteristics to humorous effect. At its best, it brings out the subject’s inner self in a kind of physiognomical satire and seems to be a comment on some facet of the Captain’s masculinity. Caricaturas became popular with collectors, but they perceived the “fanciful exercises” as curiosities rather than viable artistic productions. As a result, they were not displayed publicly and so one of the earliest modes of graphic satire remained in the parlour and drawing room.

While caricature originated around the Mediterranean, cartoons of a more editorial nature developed in a chillier climate. The Protestant Reformation began in Germany, and made extensive use of visual propaganda; the success of both Martin Luther’s socio-religious reforms and the discipline of political cartooning depended on a level of civilisation neither too primitive nor too advanced. A merchant class had emerged to occupy positions of leadership within the growing villages and towns, which meant that a core of people existed who would respond to Luther’s invectives and be economically capable of resisting the all-powerful Catholic Church. With regard to the physical requirements of graphic art, both woodcutting and metal engraving had become established trades, with many artists and draughtsmen sympathetic to the cause. Finally, the factor which probably influenced the rise of cartoons more than any other cultural condition was a high illiteracy rate. Luther recognised that the support of an increasingly more powerful middle class was crucial to the success of his reforms, but in order to lead a truly popular movement he would need the sheer weight of the peasantry’s numbers. The distribution of simple broadsheet posters or illustrated pamphlets throughout population centres proved to be an effective strategy because the images would reach a large amount of people and enjoy the greatest possible amount of comprehension. As Barry Burden, assistant professor of government at Harvard University puts it, “Satire was once the way for illiterate people to make sense of what was going on in politics.”

An excellent example of Luther’s use of visual protest is found in two woodcuts from the pamphlet “Passional Christi und Antichristi”, originally drawn by Lucas Cranach the Elder. These two images contrast the actions of Jesus with those of the Church hierarchy.The hegemony of religion at the time ensured that when someone drew a Biblical episode like that of Jesus driving the moneychangers out of the Temple, everyone would recognise it.The artist juxtaposed the first scene with a contemporary tableau that many people would also understand: the Pope writes indulgences while common folk pay their hard earned money in tribute. The two pictures clearly intend to raise public consciousness by illustrating the premise that changes must be made within the Church for life to ever become more Christlike. “Passional Christi und Antichristi” also demonstrates the artist’s use of the second element of political cartoons-- the context of a widely-recognised story or setting— to get his point across.

As time went on, Germanic art assimilated the Italian caricatura and established the conventions practiced on a wide basis by cartoonists of the 18th Century. The cartoon became a substantial medium of commentary which took serious issues and presented them in a manner which was not only amusing, and therefore more socially acceptable, but also designed to affect the viewer’s opinion. As Western culture diversified from its original religious foundation, new subjects became available for discussion and subsequent ridicule; as such the appeal and influence of cartoons on public life grew in proportion.

The American political cartoon was born in Philadelphia. This is sometimes credited to Benjamin Franklin for his famed Join or Die of 1974, showing a severed snake, its separate parts labelled as colonies. But four copperplate images, a 1764–65 series, are considered the true beginning of the tradition in their comic-but-cutting depiction of a political event, and particularly, of Franklin himself. The series inflamed tempers during the 1764 elections and ultimately cost Franklin his seat in the Pennsylvania Assembly, the only election he was ever to lose.

In the 18th Century the cartoonists of England, Russia, Germany, Spain, and the United States generally declared satirical war on Napoleon, and so effective were they that Napoleon sent notes to the government of England requesting their suppression, equating them with murderers. By the mid-19th century, editorial cartoons had become regular features in American newspapers, and were soon followed by sports cartoons and humorous cartoons. The effect of political cartoons on public opinion was amply demonstrated with the demise of William Tweed, a New York politician in the 1870s, largely caused by the attention paid to him by cartoonist Thomas Nast. Tweed’s exasperated response speaks to the power of Nast’s cartoons. He demanded of his henchmen, “Stop them damned pictures. I don’t care what the papers write about me. My constituents can’t read. But, damn it, they can see pictures!”

In the 20th Century, the influence of cartoons was such that Hitler and Stalin surrounded themselves with large groups of “pocket” cartoonists who praised them extravagantly. They also destroyed or exiled cartoonists critical of them. During the “Battle for Britain” Englishman David Low, considered the century’s greatest cartoonist, was put on Hitler’s “death list.”

In recent years, 29 countries have jailed or otherwise punished newspaper cartoonists, according to the Cartoonist Relief Network which is dedicated to the protection of the rights of editorial cartoonists.

This article first appeared in ‘Drawing the Line’ published by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES), and Association of East African Cartoonists (KATUNI) to which attribution is made


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