Saturday, 20 February 2010

Ronald Searle 2

In his work of the 1950s Searle was employed to delineate all the multitudinous classes of Britain in all their unmistakeable manners and style. Thousands of faces in all attitudes would be traced in caricatures, reportage, cartoons and anatomies of society. It is a decade of intense work and almost all of it worthwhile anyone’s attention. By the beginning of the 1950s Searle was irrefutably himself and in possession of what is identifiable as his ever-maturing individual style. His earlier tremulous line has been condensed. His outlines are ever so slightly thicker which gives his characters a greater density of presence on the page. But it is the stuttering, rickety quality of Searle’s line which is striking. Previously, Searle drew in long freehand lines like loose strings laid on the page. Now Searle reduces the length of individual line strokes, so what was previously cascading and tremulous is now a stammer in ink on the page. Searle still has the overall simple flowing impression of form, but the effect of so many lines encroaching upon each other, with the slight flicked thickening as they abut and zigzag bestows an arresting subliminal complexity and control to his outlines (a discovery also made by Arnold Roth in the mid-60s). Furthermore, the element of action and motion, of vibrant immediacy and spontaneity trapped in this line suggest a new kind of motion on the page. From not knowing how much detail to put into a drawing, now the information of detail is conveyed through the technique of his line. The shabbiness, dilapidation, confusion and wariness of his people is conveyed in a frayed, bristling, ragged, rumpled, yet artistically controlled shapelessness. Searle no longer has to wrestle with detail, as he captures it eloquently in baroque curves, frills and waves.

The 1950s are largely remembered as the period of Searle’s work for “Punch”. Searle’s two and a half year stint (1949-51) as the pocket cartoonist for the socialist journal “Tribune” is largely forgotten. Some critics have analysed the St Trinians cartoons as an attack on the polite, decent traditions of a class-bound Britain by a cynical war-shaken soldier determined to breakdown the taboos of an outdated society. Other than a few editorial cartoons for “Punch” when Leslie Illingworth was on holiday and then the symbolic tableaux of “le Monde” in the 1990s, Searle has eschewed explicit political commentary in his work. Searle’s pocket cartoons for “Tribune” therefore constitute the largest body of forthright contemporary political commentary he has attempted. The pocket cartoon format typically eschews topical figures, instead offering gag situations in which the ordinary citizenry comment on the events of the day. Osbert Lancaster was the petit-maitre of the pocket cartoon, but he wrote from an absolute assumption of upper class mores. Searle’s cartoons relish the privations and indignities that a post-war Britain inflicts upon its toffs: haughty moustachioed plutocrats and cigar-smoking Tories in pinstripes or morning suits, whose spindly legs improbably support swag-bellies of barrage balloon proportions. Pondering too much about the political allegiances of a commercial artist can lead one down dead-ends, since 1951 also saw Searle contribute to the right-wing “Sunday Express”. The larger lesson Searle probably learnt from this work is that since it is in the nature of this humorous work to be dependent on current political ephemera, these cartoons are then equally ephemeral and consequently rendered almost indecipherable when that historical knowledge is forgotten. Since it lay within his power to embody and capture the contemporary scene in all its presentness, rather than merely executing a gag on some topical reference, his rendered artistic observations would in themselves be a sufficient criticism on the age and a more reliable and lasting achievement.

The early 1950s also revealed that if Searle wanted to develop his skills and diversify, he was not prepared to cravenly limit himself to his established audience’s expectations. For all that St Trinians brought him fame, it was of a limited sort and the monthly cartoon had become a chore. With his 1953 collection, Souls in Torment, Searle definitively killed off St Trinians in an atomic blast. This was to be the first indication that Searle’s artistic impulses would compel him to escape the treadmills of success for a more solitary path. His immediate obligations to his publisher did lead to a particularly fruitful collaboration which further exploited the humour to be found in the English public school, the “Molesworth” books in which Geoffrey Willans records the orthographically and grammatically idiosyncratic cynical diaries and observations of nigel molesworth the curse of st custards. Down with Skool! (1953), How to be Topp (1954), Whizz for Atomms (1956), and Back in the Jug Agane (1959) have become classics enchanting subsequent generations ever since (even introducing the world to Hogwarts). Searle’s figure of Molesworth is instantly recognisable, his cynical, jaded eyes lowering in his pug-like face. In St Trinians, Searle’s imagination had been constrained to malign or rowdy japes with rudimentary figure for the girls. In all the varieties of cartoonish attitudes to complement molesworth’s enumerations of schoolboy life, Searle could indulge himself in generous galleries of faces of fellow pupils, brothers, mothers, and school masters. His style also serves admirably for the historical, science-fictional or revenge fantasies of the young schoolboy.

This mastery of broad cartoonish expressiveness had been learnt during Searle’s employment as the caricaturist for “Punch”’s theatre column. Searle’s appointment had been a slightly unusual decision since Searle did not consider himself a natural caricaturist. Yet it served as an effective way of strengthening Searle’s ties to the magazine and was a function he was to perform from 1949 until 1961, accompanying Eric Keown’s theatre reviews, and so incidentally recording many of the great British actors and performances of that turbulent decade. Rather than employing the realistic physiognomical detail of his reportage, Searle learnt to essay human faces in a simplified cartoonish style all his own. He only ever offers a couple of the prominent actors in costume, bare of any setting. Again the upper torso is still dominant, so that these compressed figures come to resemble trotting dwarves. These faces are bolder and more simplistic for maximum effect, given his limited space. The emphasis is on the faces, with curving cheekbones or ballooning chins. The lines of his outsized heads swerve and swoop, yet Searle not only limns their features but also captures something of the nature of the performance and interpretation of the role.

The most lavish products of Searle’s exercises in caricature were his series of portraits, “Heroes of Our Time” for “Punch”. Appearing from September 1956 to March 1957, they were a follow-up to Searle’s Rake’s Progress, and his opportunity to record the most prominent British figures of the period. Centre-fold colour portraits, they have been largely forgotten, beyond the means of easy inclusion in his contemporary collections, and subsequently omitted from Searle’s lavish retrospectives of the 1970s and 1980s. Each was a famous person: an actor, a bishop, a lord, a judge, a conductor, a politician, Bertrand Russell, Princess Margaret, T. .S. Eliot. As selections they probably say more about the taste and concerns of “Punch” and its readership. Aside from his “Punch” covers, they were Searle’s only opportunity to work in colour, and he employs subtle, muted colours with an attention to depth and textures that will not feature in his later colour lithographs. Each is executed in a traditional formal portrait manner: torso and head with suitable attention to costume. Each comes with a mildly deprecating verse from the editorial table, but it is Searle’s faces which are arrestingly ambiguous. Searle’s caricatures are neither extravagantly distorted nor vicious, but Searle’s thrusting noses and buckled-up chins when executed in a portraitist’s pomp acquire a new unsettling dimension of realism. Arresting though they may seem, as stand alone images they suffer the same fate as his “Tribune” cartoons, hostages to the specificity of a forgotten history.

It is Searle’s attempts at exploring and capturing the stereotypes and manners of contemporary society which have proved more enduring. The title “Morbid Anatomies” would seem to play off the ghoulish humour for which he had become famous, but are really a series in which the clichés of a given profession are all collated into one big visual pun parodying its jargon and pretences, i.e., The Journalist with his “eye for the news”, “his finger for the pulse of the public”, “his coat for turning”. As a means of compiling social commentary it indicated a new explicitly satirical direction for Searle. Searle was trying to find a satirical/comic way of looking at people which would effectively bring different types and attitudes together. Searle had compiled cavalcades of classes and ages of Britons in varied pursuits: the reading public, on holiday, enjoying the arts, suffering the weather, etc., but they were too disparate and were only ever connected by their gag topic. Searle exhumed a format in Hogarth’s 18th century “Rake’s Progress” that would allow him to both concentrate his attack, while also broadening the material he could fit into a cartoon realism. Each “Rake’s Progress” typifies the career of a particular profession in one figure: doctor, poet, general, M.P., etc, within six tightly constructed narrative panels: Advent, Emergence, Success, Triumph, Temptation, Ruin. Appearing in 1954 and 1955, each “Rake’s Progress” lets Searle trace British history and culture from the turn of the century, including choice allusions and caricatures of the famous of the period. Taken in their entirety the “Rake’s Progress” constitute possibly the finest satirical panorama of the 1950s, from the humble to the famous, rising from home life and public venues to the private conclaves of the elect, everything that that the propriety of “Punch” can encompass is featured.

Searle was still dedicated to catching all the ephemera of British life in all its relevant quotidian detail. Look at London (1953) collected the best of his illustrative reportage for “News Chronicle”. They are his finest works of draughtsmanship, displaying absolute control, fully finished, and exceptional in terms of compositional arrangement and power of recording (possibly emphasised by the newspaper’s need for reproductive clarity). From crowded scenes at the tourist attractions to portraits of forgotten tradesmen in dens surrounded by their tools and bric-a-brac, each drawing has just the necessary degree of density of lines or white space to leap from the page and communicate a personal affect.Not only does he capture the character of the people of London, but also of the city itself, for as the critic George Melly noted, Searle has a “feeling for the personality of architecture”. Searle’s sympathy is caught in the lines and jowls of his subjects’ lived in features, as his hesitant line outfits their apparel with the frayed dignity of their labours. Even as Searle demonstrates his mastery of the individual human face, these drawings constitute his farewell to such pure portraiture.

The 1950s saw Searle stamp his imprimatur on London, but his people were now to be less verisimilitudinous, in differing degrees the more cartoonish figures of his imagination. Partly this may stem from the fact that many are the result of collaborations with other writers. His art is not intended as pure journalism in itself but to illustrate observations about the varied types inhabiting modern London. Bedsitters, prostitutes, teddy boys, office workers, salesmen, entertainers and their audiences, intellectuals, children and the new class of teenagers, a list as large as the population of London. But his figures are still distinctive, not merely humorous social types, but impressed by the wearying and melancholy effect of living London, yet still drawing upon and projecting reserves of pride and attitude: Modern Types with Geoffrey Gorer (1955) and The Big City, or the New Mayhew with Alex Atkinson (1958) both appeared originally in "Punch"; Mr Rothman’s New Guide to London (1958), an exercise in 1890s nostalgia; numerous illustrations of Charles Dickens; and The Shell Junior Guide to Exploring London (1965), a farewell to the fantasies and delights of historical London; all attest to Searle’s fascination with the capital. Ben Shahn, another social realist chronicler, wrote of Searle’s “infinite toleration and sympathy for the human condition…for all those crotchety, mal-shapen well-intentioned persons, labouring earnestly, arduously and with infinite difficulty through the barbed-wire entanglements of life, but never questioning their duty to go on”.

Even as Searle exhausted himself in the riches of the specific, his last major collaboration at “Punch” was to offer him a commercial and creative lifeline for later. USA for Beginner: By Rocking Chair Across America (1959) and its sequel Russia for Beginners (1960) were both written by Alex Atkinson as comedic travelogues employing all the clichés and commonplaces about the country under investigation without the burden of ever having to visit it. It was travel as a fantasia, a confection whipped up from the froth of the common imagination. Searle’s illustrations happily caricaturing American stereotypes were the perfect complement. Without the need for research and study Searle could draw comic cowboys, Manhattanites, prospectors, tourists, Southern generals and New Orleans jazzmen exhibited in a free and playful humour. Beside the central joke of each illustration, there was a new cartoonish exuberance in his drawings of Manhattan, Washington, D.C., forests and shacks, yet nearly as detailed as his serious reportage. It was a new mode of asserting his humour while addressing the world. Furthermore, it grounded his growing taste for the surreal and gave it expression within the main populist body of his work.

Such pure gag and joke cartoons as Searle had been drawing at this time had been increasing self-referential, an artistic turning in upon himself, examining the irrationality of representation in art. If he wasn’t alluding to other contemporary artists, or eliding the barriers between the work of art and its audience, then his people were finding themselves assaulted by signs and notations. Cartoons about the unrealistic nature of cartooning have always been a staple of the medium, but there was a glazed intensity reminiscent of the dislocated cartoons Howard Shoemaker was also producing during this period. Eyes, legs and other features are paradoxically separated from his characters’ bodies. Throughout the 1950s Searle paid semi-regular homages to Picasso, which at the time appearing in “Punch” were more likely interpreted as complacent humour at Picasso’s expense, but in retrospect suggest Searle’s own admiration and his Modernist inclinations in his later and bolder use of line, form and colour. When discussing his work, it is to the likes of Modigliani and Giacometti that Searle is most likely to refer, with talk of taking a line for a walk and the struggle to realise on paper the feel of the image in his head.

Despite breaking free of the prison of St Trinians, the career Searle had built for himself only served to immure him in further and greater demands. Searle had signed a contract with “Punch” whereby all his work published in England would only appear in its pages. However it had now reached a point where “Punch” was no longer certain what Searle could do for it, only that it wanted more of the same. It had neither the means nor the inclination to encourage his best work, whatever that might prove to be. Commissions were now coming from America, but they followed the pattern of work he had done for English audiences. Searle had latterly discovered American markets which would commission him to survey Germany, France and America itself. These efforts, collected in Which Way Did He Go (1961), were not humorous, and were slightly sketchier in manner than his “News Chronicle” works, yet his relish for all the garish urban spectacle of vertiginous signs and advertising is evident as his lines criss-cross in perspectives of boulevards, city-blocks, markets, pubs and arrondissements. The framing and perspective lines were now visible through the grids and baroque curves of his observations like fleeting thoughts caught on paper. This style is probably best employed in the series of spare ghost-like drawings evoking the isolation of refugee camps for a U.N campaign, the becalmed refugees almost transparent and spectral against their confines. He reported for “Life” magazine on the Nixon-Kennedy presidential campaign and the Adolf Eichmann trial. >He was in demand for film animation designs (and note the belated Searle influence in the Disney films of the early 1960s). He had even been forced to anonymously contribute to British propaganda during the 1956 Suez War. His facility was prodigious, capable of executing a densely detailed comic illustration of an old Bailey trial in barely six hours. Simply because he could do it, it did not mean that the doing constituted an opportunity. To judge that his style was perfect meant he had completed his development, and consigned him to nothing more than a career recapitulating his own clichés.

In September 1961, Searle made the most definite and slashing change in his life. Just as a collection of his work stated that “mid-century Britain is a Searle-haunted land”, Searle was preparing to abandon it. He left his family, moving from London to be with his new lover Monica in Paris. It was as importantly a liberation from the confining domestication of his art, and he would rarely visit England ever again. Instead of tailoring his art to the demands of his life, he would tailor his life to the demands of his art. Searle also saw Paris as the centre of a new movement in graphic art. Searle’s intention was to find ways of making his art more international. Firstly, this meant taking more foreign reportage assignments which could pay him to travel the world. Secondly, it meant developing an art that would dispense with purely parochial references and concerns, and by analysing his methods of representation could communicate universally.

His last sequence of works for “Punch” signify Searle’s growing prioritisation of his imagination over painstaking realism. Removed from the facts of England, he offered a series of caricatures of famous people, “The Searle’s Eye Views: as the imagination sees them”. He deliberately rejected any attempt at capturing a literal likeness or physical features. Instead, they were fantasies on the subject’s character and reputation, comic exaggerations of stereotypes like his “Rocking Chair” illustrations. Walt Disney is a fat, aged, bewhiskered Mickey lost in satisfied reverie. Ingmar Bergman is a gaunt skeletal face hidden behind a rickety fence, with one immense eye staring through a gap in the slats. Writers are portrayed as projections of their work’s subject matter: Robert Graves is an heroically-thewed and bearded Greek, C.S. Forester is a pipe-smoking, peg-legged sailor.
More conceptual are Angus Wilson as a lofty brain surgeon delving his instruments into the flip-top head of a bored suburban matron, Aldous Huxley as a man whose head, an immense latitude-lined globe marked with worry, is clasped in concern, or John Betjeman as an Edwardian fighting a rearguard retreat with his umbrella-cum-rifle. As in his theatrical caricatures, Searle eschews almost any background scenery, except in the case of some of the absurdist writers like Samuel Beckett and Ionesco. These he places on stages whose boards extending into a far distant horizon are the first use of what would become a trademark setting.

It is a similar insistence on his powers of creative invention that would vivify his reportage work for commercial magazines. Where his drawings of Paris, Las Vegas, New York and San Francisco had been scrupulously detailed, now he became to execute his commissions as explorations in fantasy. Americans had been flattered and charmed by the imaginative manner of his “Rocking Chair” illustrations, and in 1960 he had been voted Cartoonist of the Year by the National Cartoonist Society, the first non-American to receive that honour. Continuing in that vein, applying humour to his capacity for painstaking observation of scenarios would be the foundation of some of his finest achievements. Rather than just being an amusing illustration to accompany an amusing article, Searle’s works would be commentary in their own right. Inadvertently, it was also a necessary commercial development, as magazines’ ability to reproduce lavish colour photography meant pictorial journalists were about to find themselves outmoded. Searle’s humour, however, meant he possessed a unique selling point and was therefore able to compete with the camera’s eye. Furthermore, lucrative assignments for American magazines meant he could also finally extend himself in colour work. It was this mode of humorous transformation of the real world that would be his characteristic commercial style for the next decade, as he found himself in demand at “Holiday” magazine and “TV Guide”.

The best of this work is collected From Frozen North to Filthy Lucre (1964) and Haven’t We Met Before Somewhere? (1966). The full-page work is as detailed as before but now it has a two-fold purpose – to accurately represent each new venue, and also to support the gag which Searle has envisioned. Some compositions are gags contrasting the humans with their scenery. Against the splendour of the Library of Congress, a teenager is engrossed in his comic book. Some are humorous situations: on a Provincetown pier, an artist fights off the flock of birds intent on his painting of a fish. Some are visual puns: a spectral bear and bull waltz together over the stock exchange, or a modernist building is drawn to resemble a crocodile about to snap shut on its tourists. Some are wholly figurative: dollar bills overlie the towering cityscape of Wall Street. At the same time there is some loss of human individuality. The human figures are there to contribute to the scene and the gag, but not to distract from it. So many of the sights he visits are largely populated by the older, affluent population of Europe and America, tourists and businessmen. Searle develops a generic cartoony face composed of descending bulges and curves to represent jowls and protuberant heads with rolls of fat on the neck, with scratchy vertical lines for facial wrinkles.

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