Inked into history: cartoons tell story of us

National Library of Australia Inked exhibition draws from more than 200 years of cartoons


EYE TOONS: Guy Hansen, curator of the Inked: Australian Cartoons exhibition at the National Library of Australia in Canberra, with the exhibition's highly decorated kangaroo mascot by cartoonist David Pope. Photo: Karleen Minney

EYE TOONS: Guy Hansen, curator of the Inked: Australian Cartoons exhibition at the National Library of Australia in Canberra, with the exhibition's highly decorated kangaroo mascot by cartoonist David Pope. Photo: Karleen Minney

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Cartoons are more than just visual gags which provide a momentary diversion. Like the work of filmmakers, writers and journalists, they hold up a mirror to Au...

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Cartoons are more than just visual gags which provide a momentary diversion.

Like the work of filmmakers, writers and journalists, they hold up a mirror to Australia and invite us to reflect on what is going on in our society.

They help generate the cultural capital that makes our society work.

At their very best, they capture the zeitgeist or puncture the spin of politicians.

Inked: Australian Cartoons, the National Library of Australia's new exhibition about the history of political cartooning in this country, is drawn from the library's extensive collection of more than 14,000 cartoons.

The exhibition travels through time from the 1780s to the present, providing a series of snapshots of major events and personalities from Australian history.

HOT AIR: Cartoon by Matthew Martin. Image supplied by National Library of Australia.

HOT AIR: Cartoon by Matthew Martin. Image supplied by National Library of Australia.

It includes examples of early satirical hand-coloured prints that sold from print shops in London in the 1780s, satirical drawings done by early settlers, cartoons prepared for colonial publications such as Punch and The Bulletin, as well as numerous examples of artwork from major newspapers and magazines in the 20th century.

The exhibition also includes more recent cartoons documenting the turbulent years of the Rudd, Gillard, Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison governments.

Taken together, this is a wonderful archive of Australian cartooning and Australian history.

My own love of cartoons began at the breakfast table of my family home.

I'd come out for breakfast and my mother would have The Sydney Morning Herald folded up in front of my piece of toast and my cup of tea.

When I was a kid I found the cartoons the most accessible way into politics. It was how you got a dose of political commentary in a quick and enjoyable way.

VINTAGE: Black-eyed Sue and Sweet Poll of Plymouth taking leave of their lovers who are going to Botany Bay, from 1792. By Robert Sayer (1725-1794). Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

VINTAGE: Black-eyed Sue and Sweet Poll of Plymouth taking leave of their lovers who are going to Botany Bay, from 1792. By Robert Sayer (1725-1794). Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

Delving into the National Library's collection for the Inked exhibition has been like discovering a series of time capsules. Each points to events and controversies that briefly came to the surface of the news cycle.

The 135 cartoons we have selected capture these twists and turns in the Australian story in a truly memorable way. Stories of war, the dismissal of a prime minister or a crash in the economy - all can be frozen in time in a single image.

These images appear like fossils embedded in a cliff face that remind us of the evolution of Australian politics and society. Fossil traces, however, are notoriously incomplete. Not all animals and plants are preserved in the rock face.

In the same way, not all cartoons have been preserved in collections like that of the National Library of Australia. Indeed, cartoons are by their nature ephemeral creations. Completed to be reproduced in newspapers or magazines, the original is often lost or destroyed. Those that survive represent just a small sample of the millions of cartoons drawn for the print media.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Judy Horacek's "Make cakes not war" from 2003. Image supplied by National Library of Australia.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Judy Horacek's "Make cakes not war" from 2003. Image supplied by National Library of Australia.

In the Inked exhibition I have attempted to be a cartooning palaeontologist.

I have surveyed the library's archive to find examples of cartoons that help us understand how cartooning evolved in the Australian context. These examples tell a story of how the impulse to do satirical drawings came to Australia with the first European settlers and has continued ever since.

While the collections do not contain examples of all the artists who worked in Australia, and many of those archived represent only a small sample of the artist's output, there is sufficient material to allow us to see how Australian cartooning has changed over the past 200 years.

While cartoonists initially provided amusing illustrations for magazines and papers, over time they developed their own voice for commenting on the news. By the second half of the 20th century, many cartoonists had emerged as fully-fledged social commentators.

While cartoonists initially provided amusing illustrations for magazines and papers, over time they developed their own voice for commenting on the news.

Artists such as David Low, Will Dyson, Bruce Petty, Les Tanner and Alan Moir demanded, and received, the right to maintain creative control over their work.

This opened the door for other artists to emerge as independent commentators, such as David Pope, Michael Leunig and Cathy Wilcox.

The idea of poking fun at authority figures is a universal thing, but in Australia there is probably more of an acceptance that it's part of public life.

People from overseas are often surprised at how robust political commentary is here and how robust the cartoonists are.

  • Guy Hansen is director of exhibitions at the National Library of Australia and the curator of Inked: Australian Cartoons, which is on show at the National Library in Canberra until July 21.
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