Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Rude Britannia: a rude, lewd and crude exhibition

Rude Britannia, a celebration of British comic art, opens at Tate Britain tomorrow, Wednesday June 9th. It’s a rude, lewd and crude exhibition; see Thomas Rowlandson’s etching Cunnyseurs for proof that early 19th-century England was every bit the equal of our own times in the vulgarity department. All the greats are on display: Cruickshank, Hogarth, Gillray. But so too is their modern incarnation, the brilliant but unheralded Simon Thorp, whose contributions to Viz magazine cast a cold eye on the dark underbelly of Britain. Thorp is a remarkable draftsman, who, like many other contributors to Viz, has none of the qualms of the liberal metropolitan elite when it comes to observing the antics of Britain’s marginalised. His finest character, Eight Ace is worthy of Hogarth. ‘Ace’, or to give him his full name, Octavius Tinsworth Federidge Ace, is an unemployed, alcoholic who lives in a garden shed; his wife no longer allows him in the council house she shares with their beloved ‘bairns’. But she does, every episode, entrust him with £1.49, with which to buy medicine for their child, food or other essentials. Sadly, £1.49 is also the price of Eight Ace, eight cans of foul but intoxicating lager to which Ace is addicted and can never pass by. Each episode ends as a Promethean tragedy, Ace doomed to repeat the same torture each day. It is beautifully observed, often composed without words. It may seem odd to compare the crudities of Viz to the genius of Hogarth or Cruikshank, but they are cut from the same cheap cloth, part of a long and brilliant English tradition that uses humour to confront deep social concerns and tells profound truth. Thorp and the other Viz artists acknowledge the debt they owe to the tradition, a perfect example of why What Happened then Matters Now.

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