In a month when remembrance is uppermost in our minds it is fitting to think about memory, commemoration and memorials and the different forms they take, namely inscriptions, headstones, crosses, monuments and symbolic sculpture. But powerful leaders and portraiture commonly go together. Think of Jacques-Louis David's 1801 equestrian portrait of Napoleon crossing the Alps: the wonderful combination of billowing cape, rearing stallion with windswept mane and tail, mountainous landscape, forward hand gesture and confident, direct gaze has rarely been surpassed.
The romantic image was so engrossing that David painted five versions of it for various European courts – each slightly different but all containing those same alluring elements. The painting became so famous that it was transferred onto a lithographic plate and the resulting black and white image was available to French citizens as a saloon print. But in 1814, when Napoleon was stripped of political power and exiled to Elba, cartoonists in London swapped his stallion for a donkey, his colourful cape for a drab coat and his majesty for the persona of a common man. A scathing caricature of a defeated hero looking back not motioning forward, was how millions of English preferred to remember Napoleon.
What memorials will there be for Australia's more humble politicians who have little opportunity to change the course of history by territorial and cultural conquest, how will we remember them? Probably I suggest, as caricatures - exaggerations devoid of romantic ideals but suggestive of political influence. Think of John Frith's caricatures of Arthur Calwell as a screeching cockatoo, or Robert Menzies's with his arched eyebrows and thistle hats, or Gough Whitlam's Breton top and beret following his appointment as Australian ambassador to UNESCO in Paris. These impressions last longer than the moment and may endure for many generations.
I've just finished curating Behind the Lines 2013, an exhibition of Australia's best political cartoons, for the Museum of Australian Democracy, Old Parliament House, in Canberra. The cartoons enthusiastically offer a constructed political reality and an opportunity for prudential remembering and without a doubt they evoke the infinitely complicated shape and motion of the year. Unfortunately for former and current politicians the memory of that year is not wrapped in happy victories and their caricatures are not crowded with romantic embellishment.
Some commentators have a tendency to dismiss cartoons as ephemeral and of no lasting consequence but I differ. Cartoons have a sting, what we call satire and the truth in any cartoon is often the hardest missile politicians can be pelted with. The strong link between ridicule and loss of conviction, loss of power and loss of prestige is a relationship that cartoonists are willing to exploit and perhaps members elected to the 44th parliament should be wary of hypocritical words and sanctimonious actions if they wish to avoid a cartoonist's skewer.
Politicians and the political games they play have always provided an inexhaustible repository of images for cartoonists. To test my theory about the strong causal relationship between ridicule and conviction, power and prestige here's a quiz. Which twentieth century prime ministers do we associate with the following features: flowing hair, prominent nose and small stature? Or think dress: who was more often than not depicted in a tracksuit, who in a top hat and coat tails or striped suit?
In 2013 Prime Minister Gillard was drawn in more guises than her successors. She was a union queen, a bikie, a card player and a robotic automaton. She was almost always looking over her shoulder. Why? Possibly it had something to do with her legitimacy to hold office. There were many character roles for Prime Minister Rudd: he was an escaping prisoner, an inflated balloon, a king and a humpty dumpty egg. These symbols possibly suggest that cartoonists were impressed with his popularity but unsure as to its depth. Before he was sworn in as Prime Minister Tony Abbott was universally drawn bare chested in his red swimming costume or in a cycling outfit – and then the metamorphosis happened. One persona (Mr NO), disappeared and another populist politician emerged. It seems that cartoonists were more confident in understanding the nature of his popularity.
Interestingly all three leaders had cartoon versions of equestrian portraits. One of Australia's most popular cartoonists, David Rowe, drew Julia Gillard as a modern day jockey flogging a dead horse when the polls indicated she wouldn't win the election. Kevin Rudd was a reincarnated Napoleon on a ghost steed when he replaced her as Australian Labor Party leader and Tony Abbott was portrayed as a knight in jousting armour on a charger. If triumphant historical figures are shown on horseback was Rowe exploring stature and not finding it?
Political cartoons have enduring value as forceful interpretations of modern political life and 2013 furnished additional signs and symbols capable of transmitting ideas and triggering emotions. Add blue ties to the existing armory of political symbols.
Cartoonists take their history seriously and they know how to use it as a weapon but in this is a new age of political theatre, undoubtedly new gestures, new body language and new rhetoric will transform the parliament. As someone with more than a passing an interest in political cartoons I'm wondering who is going to steal the show, who will stumble, who will be candid and who will act on impulse? It won't take long for new caricatures to be created for all of us to consider and perhaps remember.
Behind the Lines 2013 is on display at the Museum of Australian Democracy, Old Parliament House Canberra, 18 King George Terrace Parkes ACT 2600 www.moadoph.gov.au/behindthelines
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