I’ve never given political cartoons much thought. Having spent my fair share of time in the comics section of the newspaper, I was comforted by the predictably sweet but boring drawings and stories. As with many people, the comics section is a refuge from the difficult subject matter of current events. Something in them is universally accessible, simple, and truthful. Despite not laughing aloud every time, I am faithful to the ritual of flipping to the comics section before I read anything else.
The debate over the suitability or seriousness of comics has always excluded political and editorial cartoons, however. They are taken so seriously that, since its inauguration in 1921, the McCord Museum has collected over 25,000 political cartoons, forming the second largest collection in Canada.
The new exhibit, Cartooning Calamities, features 175 pieces, mostly originals (marvel at brush strokes and barely visible pencil lines), as well as nine brand new, unpublished cartoons created exclusively for this exhibit by some of Montreal’s best known political cartoonists, including Aislin (The Gazette), Garnotte (Le Devoir), R.Pier (Le Journal de Montreal), and Serge Chapleau (La Presse).
Divided into five sections, the pieces are united by the themes they comment upon: Political Calamities, Major Upheavals Affecting Humanity, Death Before the End of the World, Calamities That Never Were, and the End of the Blue Planet.
Consuming these satirical works is not unlike drinking a gourmet cup of coffee – they are rich, nuanced, and provide a necessary jolt of wakefulness, alerting the viewer to the simple truths of life in the complexity of current events. Whether it’s the futility of war, the hypocrisy of politicians, or the hysteria of the public, the cartoonist’s critical eye does not shy away.
One, by an artist known as Côté (Le Soleil Québec), speaks directly to the unacknowledged importance of the political cartoonist. The image is of two soldiers, hiding behind a crest of rubble from the chaos in the background. The upright soldier, supporting his injured friend exclaims, “There are no more journalists to cover this war!” To which the other replies, “There’s always the cartoonists!”
War is a major theme throughout the exhibit. After viewing the new drawings at the entrance of the exhibit, there is a heavy shift in tone as the subject matter turns towards World Wars I and II and the Cold War. At the back of the room, looming over the brightly lit display cases, is a red wall with two tall black rectangles representing the Twin Towers. A display of cartoons dedicated to September 11, 2001, is behind this wall, creating a dramatic isolation of the horror of these events.
But the cartoons extend beyond events in recent years, and the oldest are some of the most interesting. Political cartooning was alive and well in the late 19th century in Montreal, though the subject matter was mostly concerned with public health. One, in particular, portrays a doctor with his bag, each item on his person labeled with the name of a disease or infection. The doctor is seen as a carrier of illness as opposed to a healer of it. The style of cartooning was not dissimilar to today, and those who have had as much trouble with Western medicine and practitioners as I have might find that its subject matter is still quite relevant.
There is a tenderness to this style of art that is sometimes hard to see behind the sarcasm and hyperbole. It is most evident in the caricatures of public figures drawn after their deaths. Prominent features are still exaggerated, and if the person being drawn was known for a particular quirk, it is well identified, but these images are granted the weight and kindness of silence. The cane-bearing silhouette of Jack Layton walking into an orange sunset had me misty-eyed.
That is value of these cartoons, and the reason we should observe them with respect and admiration. Underneath their many layers, specific references, and sharpened pen nibs is the desire for a better world and a stubborn refusal to accept anything less. In that, there is no doubt that our appreciation of this topical, humorous art form is long overdue.
Cartooning Calamities is on exhibition at the McCord Museum from June 20th, 2012 until January 26th, 2013. Every Wednesday from 5-9pm, and every first Saturday of the month, admission is free.
Association of Editorial Cartoonists: http://acec.4ormat.com/home
Georgia Webber is a Toronto-born cartoonist living in Montreal. She loves creative writing, publishing, teaching workshops and, most heart-consumingly, comics. She welcomes your inquiries, enthusiasm and conversation on any of these subjects.