I may be playing catch-up here a little while longer. (Do feel free to duck out!) Please note this state of affairs won’t last forever, and will shortly be followed up by even older stuff.
This time we’re taking a look back at the Ronald Searle exhibition that ran at the London Cartoon Museum from March to July last year. My soundbite description of Searle would be that he was the Stones to Giles’ Beatles. Though the two were contemporaries, had similar styles and even worked some of the same gigs, there is something darker and edgier about Searle.
This is perhaps epitomised by his line, which is itself associated with the way he’d draw characters’ legs – jutting black swooshes cutting angularly across the frame, at once awkward and elegant. That agitated, blotchy line, spluttering with as much energy as dodgy electrical wiring, charges Searle’s world into a frenzied, jagged place, filled with figures you can’t imagine at rest. That line would make Searle the missing link between George Grosz and Ralph Steadman – except for the fact that he’s not missing at all, he’s right here in front of us.
(It’s often the stuff which looks the easiest to do which is the hardest. Though ratty-looking, perhaps even passing for dashed-off, that spluttering line was entirely cultivated. Early works here are executed with Sunday-best brush strokes, as smooth and sinuous as you could wish for.)
Searle’s other great divergence point to Giles is that he never settled. While Giles got a steady gig at the Express and stuck to it, Searle walked away from his successful St. Trinians brand. His subsequent work was as itinerant as the travel-reportage drawings which make up so much of this exhibition. In that way he’s like the pop star who soon grew jaded of serving up hits, cartooning’s Scott Walker. A career-spanning exhibition thereby comes across as both necessary and desirable. With Giles those Express compendiums, lining up neatly on the library shelf, make an exhibition superfluous. With Searle we need this big chunk of physical space to capture the span of his work.
The show starts with the reportage drawings Searle made while imprisoned in Japan during the War, sketched secretly on random bits of paper. An apparent accident of framing puts his first St. Trinians cartoon on the same panel as these, but then you read he actually drew this whilst still a prisoner.
Some have speculated that these experiences fed into Searle’s dark undertone, just as JG Ballard’s powered his fiction. But Ballard was a child at the time, and his resultant experience ambiguous – as much an escape from table manners as an ordeal. To argue something similar of Searle may be stretching a point. Was he driven to that drawing by the conditions in the camps, or was he merely dreaming of starting his drawing career as soon as he got out?
The exhibition comments that Bateman always drew situations rather than characters. The point of those “the man who...” isn’t the man, but the context his faux pas appears in - society predominates. Like Giles, Searle is all about the characters. Even when he draws a crowd scene, every face is individualised enough to walk away and start their own series. Searle was at heart a caricaturist...
...which can be a drawback with some of the reportage drawings. It’s notable that the American scenes tend to be more successful, more wild and more grotesque. Did Searle see America as somewhere more foreign? Or with a European’s eye, somewhere less ‘real’ in the sense of less cultured?
The London Cartoon Centre should be congratulated for staging this show so well. But in a sane and just world Tate Britain would never be shutting up about Searle...
Post-script!: For any that can make it there, the Wilhelm Busch Museum in Hannover is showing this exhibition until 30 January 2011.