Some countries overthrow their politicians. Some endure them. In Britain, they just laugh at them.
The renowned British sense of humor is on display in a new London exhibition that charts 300 years of the anarchic artistic spirit that produced the political satire of William Hogarth and "Spitting Image" as well as the sheer silliness of Benny Hill.
"Rude Britannia," which opens Wednesday at the Tate Britain
gallery, is a feast of irreverence and bad taste that asks whether there is a distinctively British sense of humor, and examines how humor is intertwined with the country's cultural and political history.
"This isn't necessarily about 'funny ha ha," although there are jokes," Tate Britain director Penelope Curtis said Monday. "It's about how the comic is used to do things we can't do in other ways. Often the comic artist is making a very serious point about something that can't be said openly."
Curator Martin Myrone said there has long been a belief that "a distinct British character informal, humorous, sarcastic" has produced a strong seam of comic art.
He said that while arguing for national character in art is problematic and not all the artists in the show are British by birth "humor has had a very important role to play in the way the story of British art has been told."
While European artists like Jacques-Louis David were striving to create a high-minded new classicism 200 years ago, in Britain the likes of Thomas Rowlandson, James Gillray and Hogarth were using their talents to satirize and caricature the politicians of the day.
The exhibition begins in the 17th century, when printing technology first allowed the mass production of cartoons and political broadsides. Then, as now, cartoonists took aim at politics, the economy and social ills.
One of the earliest works shows Oliver Cromwell, who overthrew the monarchy, donning the regalia of a king. The more things change, many of the artists here seem to say, the more they stay the same.
Some of the images are tastelessly timeless, like the anonymous 18th-century etching "Idol-Worship or the Way to Preferment," which shows gentlemen kissing the enormous posterior of Robert Walpole, a politician widely regarded as Britain's first prime minister.
Throughout the exhibition, crass toilet humor intertwines with the political. The crude slapstick of TV's "Benny Hill Show" or the "Carry On" movies is as central to the British comic tradition as the exalted Hogarth.
One of the show's six themed rooms is devoted to explicitly bawdy art, from 200-year-old erotic etchings to the saucy seaside postcards of Donald McGill, full of plump, smiling figures emitting double entendres that may even cause blushes among readers today. They are on display still attached to the index cards kept by a disapproving public prosecutor, who amassed a thick file on McGill.
The exhibition's centerpiece is a room devoted to politics, showing how artists have skewered politicians from Napoleon Bonaparte to Adolf Hitler and prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.
British political cartoons are often much more vicious and visceral than their North American counterparts. In one of the milder instances, the Guardian's Steve Bell invariably depicted Prime Minister John Major wearing his underpants over his trousers. Another editorial cartoonist, Martin Rowson, has shown post-Iraq war Blair drenched in blood.
In the 1980s, satirical puppet show "Spitting Image" depicted Thatcher as a butcher with a bloody cleaver. Cartoonist Gerald Scarfe turned her into a prehistoric predator: the Torydactyl.
Today, Scarfe acknowledges affection for the Iron Lady as a subject, despite their political disagreements.
"Mrs. Thatcher was great, because she was a strong woman and she produced strong images," he said. "The cartoon comes from the character. You can't make weak people strong."
Many of the works on display mock, but some also appeal for change. Hogarth's 1751 "Gin Lane" and George Cruikshank's 1862 "The Worship of Bacchus" are both savage depictions of the damage done by excessive alcohol that helped change social attitudes.
In the 1930s, David Low's cartoons of Hitler helped turn British feeling against appeasement. Posters used by protesters against the invasion of Iraq unsuccessfully exhorted Blair to "Make Tea, Not War."
Scarfe, whose work appears in the Sunday Times newspaper, said at the best of times comic art "can produce a kind of rallying point around which people can gather and think, 'That's what I was feeling but couldn't put into words.'"
"I hope it helps sum up people's feelings and hopefully eventually it can become a movement," he said.
Scarfe is, however, realistic about the limits of satire's power. He says many politicians secretly enjoy being caricatured, and often ask if they can buy cartoons of themselves.
And after centuries of satire, Britain officially remains a monarchy with its upper class firmly intact. Laughter has not led to revolution.
"Perhaps we haven't had a revolution because of the safety valve provided by that satirical art," Myrone said. "So it can be quite a conservative force."
"Rude Britannia" is at Tate Britain until Sept. 5.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.