Sep 2004 Journal

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Art notes

The message of the political cartoonist is cynical and revelatory. Twice Promised Land, at the Guardian and Observer Archive and Visitor Centre (60 Farringdon Road, London EC1), makes few concessions to Israel's troubled land, her political judgements, or the tragic past from which she was born. What it does offer is the cartoonist's nous - or nose for the rumbles below the surface, the wit to present them sharply, and the skill to seek out the Achilles heel.

And, of course, there are no prizes for the faint-hearted. Ariel Sharon's physical features entice as much as Ben Gurion's, Golda Meir's or Begin's did in their day. So, contemporary Israel-Palestine is presented as a malign place signposted with jokes about the road map to peace. Sharon attempts to squeeze a dove through a Magen David - an eye-of-the-needle metaphor in a Times cartoon by Morten Morland in May last year. Steve Bell in The Guardian shows Sharon with bloodstained hand-prints on a wall. The apotheosis is David Brown's in The Independent IN January 2003 showing Sharon eating babies. Comparisons with Der Stürmer immediately arose in the wake of complaints to the British Press Complaints Commission. The timing of that cartoon came on the eve of Israel's elections, when her helicopter gunships were carrying out raids against the Palestinians in Gaza. Yet such are the vagaries of political commentary that in the week this exhibition ended, The Economist concluded a piece on Israel's internal struggle with the comment 'in his internal war at least, a world that has grown used to demonising Mr Sharon should now be wishing for his success.'

It is tempting to consider that Sharon's more agreeable predecessor, Ehud Barak, does not feature anywhere, while Golda Meir's cynical smile in a 1970 cartoon by Keith Waite prophetically asks 'When do you think it will be peaceful enough to start peace talks?' But then there's Arafat posting a parcel bomb, or his double grinning widely with a smoking gun on top of the Olympic podium, by Les Gibbon in The Guardian after the murder of the Israeli athletes in Munich by Black September in 1972. Did the Middle East fare better in the lexicon of cartoonography in the late 1940s?

Vicky pilloried British policy in Palestine in 1947 in his News Chronicle cartoon 'Where are we, Ernie?', as British Foreign Secretary Earnest Bevin blindly leads British Colonial Secretary Arthur Creech-Jones through the darkness of 'British Policy in Palestine'. David Low's portrayal of escalating violence and the murder of British troops, the Peel Commission, the partition plan and Jewish refugees desperately attempting to enter Palestine also receive history's derisive brush-stroke. Leslie Illingworth's Daily Mail cartoon in the same year has a UN figure separating the warring factions after the Partition Plan was approved by a UN resolution. It refers to the incipient Israeli state as facing criticisms from its Arab neighbours!

But the Ben Uri's latest acquisition, Emmanuel Levy's Crucifixion, says it all. Painted in 1942, it features Christ wrapped in a tallit against a background of white crosses and is a powerful protest against Britain's failure to act against the Holocaust.
Gloria Tessler

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