Saturday, 21 February 2015

A Brief Aside About Gerald Scarfe

In his books, Gerald Scarfe draws grotesquely turgid masterpieces of scatological detail. It's something you tend to forget if you take in his work via the pages of The Sunday Times or (as is my preferred option) via his weekly email. I'm not saying that they've become 'safe' but the last cartoon of his to really cause a real stink was, I believe, his picture of Benjamin Netanyahu building a wall in which Palestinians were trapped in blood-coloured cement. There's an excellent article about the cartoon here but I think it's correct to argue that the affront taken by many had nothing to do with the content of the cartoon. People were simply offended because he hadn't taken the side of Israel's Prime Minister. They were more offended by his politics than they really were by the content of the cartoon. Before that, Scarfe's previous 'outrage' might have been his draw of Prince Charles as Camilla's tampon, which is more in his usual line of sending his subjects to the arse end of humiliation.

The irony not lost to Scarfe fans is that neither are examples of his 'brutal' best. Thumb through any of his collections and you'll quickly find drawings that are more savage. Nixon, Heath, Thatcher, Blair: he attacked those four targets with particular relish and you can usually tell when Scarfe has a particular axe to grind. He learns to draw a face in shorthand form. The most obvious example is Nixon. Scarfe's Nixon drawings quickly move away from simple representation. He deconstructs (a bit of a plodding word but useful here) the faces, reducing features to their most code-like form. Nixon became drooping jowls. Heath was a long nose tapering out to nothing. Thatcher was an arcing nose and rat-like teeth. Blair was soon just the teeth and mad eyes. In comparison, he treats Netanyahu to a fairly standard caricature.

I can't help but find the difference between caricature and some kind of formal shorthand one of the most interesting areas of the subject of caricature. Not all caricaturists do it or are probably capable of doing it. If caricature is the subject of a degree course then what Scarfe does is really a doctoral study in advanced facial reductionism.

Reducing political figures to shapes is one act of brilliance but what I admire the most is his ability to reduce them to down to their sheer animalism. One of my favourite Scarfe drawings is his picture of Margaret Thatcher shitting out the remains of Ted Heath who sits on the floor, his pinched face reduced to a newly squeezed lump.


I wonder if Scarfe ever drew a character more in love with shitting than he did Thatcher, who can also be seen shitting out a brown mess that's the shape of modern Britain.


That one picture alone is the best summation of the last half century of British history since nearly all Tories are essentially Thatcherite Tories. They aren't Tories of the pre-Thatcher era. They aren't even conservatives in the traditional sense of being conservative. True conservatives hate ideology whereas the modern Conservative Party is obsessed by ideology and by the Thatcherite ideology in particular, that reduces the rest of us to barely thinking animals born to service a few with the balls to risk all, gamble high, and become supremely powerful.

As far as I know, there's no single volume collecting all of Scarfe's Thatcher-era cartoons, though I'd be the first in the queue to buy one if there was. In the meantime, I have a few examples to study and pour over. If I could get a fraction of Scarfe's anger into my own cartoons, I can't help but think they'd be better for it.


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