Thursday, March 20, 2008

Observing the Observer's observer

Chris Riddell, the Observer's cartoonist, has spent a dozen years picturing the world and the week in a single frame. His new exhibition at the Guardian's Newsroom complex (opposite the main building on the Farringdon Road) showcases his choice of clippings, from poking the Major government in black and white to Blair's technicolour farewell.

There are some funny, pointed images: Blair and Chirac embracing, each holding a dagger to the other's back; Blair holding the fish hook of Hutton while caught on the giant hook of WMD. There is also a strong strain of the tragic (or bathetic) - the Hizbollah vulture safe atop the flaming tree of Lebanon is a good example of this.

We can also see the evolution of Riddell's style. His detailed line drawings date from the days when you were lucky if black and white printing brought out what you had created, and these are full of the complex shading and slight lines characteristic of the genre until colour became possible; the detail seems quaint now, fussy even. It is when allowed to use colour that Riddell's artistic ability really shines, with beautiful scarlet curtains framing Blair walking off into a yellow sunset, or the subtle, varied blues of his skies.

He is by no means a bad artist, taking the sharp lines of David Low and Ralph Steadman but more cartoonish than the first and less than the second. What I find annoying is his use of labels and captions to explain things which the pictures can easily represent. We can understand Brown's Bounce from the springing lines, while the poisoned chalice with Blair's face gleaming on it doesn't need the No 10 label. It is either that he underestimates his audience or the conveying capabilities of his own art.

It is an odd - but not unexpectedly so - show. A little like watching old Have I Got News for You, you are taken back to concerns which were so important at the time but now are nostalgia pieces, shaded by recent history. Cartoons are just as valid a statement of the time as news articles and comment pieces, but just like them, once they have had their day, their full measure of wit and weight is lost.

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