Around eighty of the Friends, together with Friends of the New Zealand Portrait Gallery enjoyed a Friday night panel discussion coinciding with the Portrait Gallery’s current exhibition  Ludicrous Likenesses: The Fine Art of Caricature.

The subject for the evening was Cartoons: Can they survive the digital age?  The panel comprised cartoon historian and writer Ian F Grant, cartoonist Toby Morris, political columnist Jane Clifton, and was moderated by the doyen of TV interviewing, Ian Fraser.

The event – initially styled as a debate, was introduced by Fraser asserting that the earliest cartoons were the cave drawings of the Neanderthals. Thus, the art form that has survived forty thousand years will continue to survive not only the digital age, but until cockroaches crawl from the nuclear rubble of human civilisation.   This proposition was met with unanimous agreement from the panel, but rather than declare the discussion over, Fraser skilfully chaired a wide-ranging and lively discussion that considered cartooning from historical, political, and psychological perspectives, as well as the history, experience and opinions of the panel.

Ian F Grant told us what the F stands for (and why he needs it) and gave us compelling examples of how some of the best cartoonists, from David Low and Minhinnick, through to Bob Brockie and Tom Scott, used their own experiences and beliefs to create their most powerful works. Grant also illustrated the influence that cartoons can have with the example of one William (Boss) Tweed, the public works commissioner and state senator for New York in the 1870s. His corrupt practices were exposed in articles in Harper’s Weekly, illustrated with cartoons by Thomas Nast.  The strength of the images was the catalyst that ended Tweed’s career and caused him to flee from New York.

Jane Clifton revealed how she first learned about the power of an image to capture attention in her early days of journalism. (It was an image of a cow wearing a straw hat.)  No surprises then that she has her weekly Listener column accompanied by a cartoon.  She talked about how she works with cartoonist Chris Slane, and how their different take on the events of the week works better than a literal illustration of her words might do.  Toby Morris talked from the cartoonist’s viewpoint of how words and pictures are put together as he and the other Toby (writer Toby Manhire) collaborate on their RNZ website feature.

The panel talked at some length (but in the best possible taste) about how far the art of caricature should go in emphasising politicians’ physical characteristics. Imposing bulk, noses, teeth, and bags under the eyes all got a mention.

Then it was back to Ian Fraser to conclude by quoting  W H Auden’s line …“poetry makes nothing happen”,  asking if the same could be said of cartoons.
Toby Morris thought that while poetry invites us to see simple things in more depth, cartoons often work the other way around, taking complexity and rendering it into a simple image. But he was not sure if cartoons “made things happen”.

It was up to Ian F Grant to have the last word by reminding us of Boss Tweed’s fate, and the power that cartoons have to ensure their relevance and survival in the digital age.

The exhibition Ludicrous Likenesses: The Fine Art of Caricature runs at The New Zealand Portrait Gallery until the 23rd of October.

Feature Image: At the New Zealand Portrait Gallery. Friends of Te Papa President Elizabeth Kay, cartoonists Sharon Murdoch and Toby Morris, columnist Jane Clifton, and Denise Almao from the NZ Portrait Gallery