UA1-WA:P4-p1-Exercise: Looking at cartoons

This Part of the course starts with a challenge to assumptions by examining newspaper political cartoons. Two points in the course notes attracted my attention – ‘tabs of identity’ (quick and clear ways to identify the person) and a tendency to be coarse in line due to printing constraints. Is the quality of newsprint still an issue given modern printing technology and online distribution?

In Canberra last month I visited two relevant exhibitions at the Museum of Australian Democracy – Behind the Lines 2013 ( and About Face: the art of caricature ( Relevant to the topic – but perhaps difficult for my British tutor and assessors. This led me to wonder about how ‘international’ cartoons can be. I searched on the internet for cartoons from different countries on a common topic – the current ongoing Russian incursion into Crimea. An Australian take is given by Jon Kudelka in a cartoon published in The Australian 4 March 2014. On the left is the Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, identified by his red speedos (lycra swimming trunks – he is / was a volunteer surf lifesaver) which can’t actually be seen (an invisible but clearly present tag of identity!), sharp features and large ears. Abbott is on the phone to Vladimir Putin who is identified by his bare chest and muscular arms, large nose and short fair hair. There is a sparse economy of line – for example a puff of exhaust smoke, a single loopy line and a few brief marks behind the ear show the movement of Putin’s tank across the landscape. Colour shading takes advantage of new technology to a minimal extent. The men are clearly distant – Abbott in a small boat defending our borders, Putin in his tank – but the two sides are linked with a common horizon and blue sky. The politics are mainly local, referencing the Australian government’s responses to questions about people-smugglers / asylum boats, and a cheeky quote of an infamous phrase from a past Australian politician. The first American cartoon I found, drawn by Nate Beeler, turned out on investigation to be related to a different, earlier crisis. Both line and colour here are more complex, but still clearly within the cartoon genre. Barack Obama can be recognised by his elongated head and exaggerated ears, nose and mouth. Vladimir Putin is once more shirtless and muscular, enormous as the school bully giving the scrawny kid a noogie. The politics are locally focused, but in the context of international relations. While searching for a stable link (I hope!) I came across two other cartoons by Beeler with art history links – and Whether the policy relates to healthcare or Syria, Obama remains the failed abstract expressionist painter, recognisable by long head, prominent nose, mouth and ears combined with a stick thin body. A European perspective is given by Brian Adcock’s cartoon published in The Independent 6 March 2014. The lines and shading maintain the cartoon appearance, but the use of white writing on shaded backgrounds could make it difficult to read if converted to black and white or gray-scale. Putin remains muscular, shirtless, fair haired with a large nose, large and controlling. His confident power play on the map of Europe is watched by Barack Obama (elongated head, prominent nose, mouth and ears) and two others. The middle aged woman with bobbed fair hair and a hint of double chin is clearly Angela Merkle. I was fairly sure the middle figure was British, given the location of both newspaper and cartoonist, but being unfamiliar with British politics I had difficulty with identification. The identity tags – short, almost bald, pug nose – don’t fit UK Prime Minister David Cameron. I found the same figure in another Adcock cartoon showing signatories to the Iran nuclear deal (, leading me to UK foreign secretary William Hague who appears to match the tags nicely. Moving to a different alphabet was difficult – I was not successful. This link shows a cartoon from the Moscow Times. I’m fairly sure the artist is Sergei Elkin. The hard black line of the other cartoons has largely disappeared here, and even more so in some of the other work on Elkin’s blog. Putin’s fair hair and large nose remain, but the figure is dressed in a neat gray suit. The cartoon refers to a problem at the Sochi games, now overtaken by the Crimea story. International politics are certainly relevant to both the Olympic Games and the military movements, but the focus appears to be internal. This cartoon in the KvivPost newspaper doesn’t have a signature or any helpful meta-data so I haven’t been able to identify the cartoonist. It uses a black to gray line like a marker pen, a softer effect. I find the colour selection and shading unsettling, adding expressively to the mood of the cartoon more than the examples above which are roughly life-like. Based on cartoon text and caption I gather overthrown President Viktor Yanukovych is shivering under a table. Although all the identity tags have changed I believe the second man, seated at the table, is Putin. He is dressed in a gray suit. The short hair is now brown. The headshape, ears and cleft chin are different but recognisable. In the country directly affect by the incursion the focus is on their previous leader and his relationship with the Russian President.

While each artist brings a different style to their cartoons, the general approach of tabs of identity, clear and simplified line, and shading in a limited colour range is common to all.

Back home, a very direct reference to art history can be seen in Alan Moir’s cartoon Raft of the ALP published in Sydney Morning Herald, 9 May 2013 – Moir appropriates Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa to illustrate the dire situation of the ALP government, inserting political identities such as then-Prime-Minister Julia Gillard (identity tags red hair, long pointed nose and glasses).

UA1-WA:P4-p1-Exercise: Looking at cartoons
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part four: Portraiture and figure painting
Project one: The portrait
Exercise: Looking at cartoons

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March 2014

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