So what exactly does America’s alternate national anthem have to do with the latest exhibition at London’s Tate Gallery? (Millbank St) Well, for one thing, you’d understand what the lyrics mean.
When we were all in Nursery school, we’d be taught to sing a little ditty called Yankee Doodle about some weird 18th century dude, who called a feather in his cap “macaroni.” Why did he do that and why did some foreign bands still play the song when American diplomatic delegations stopped by as late as the 1970s?
The answer second question is not exactly germane here, although it probably has to do with the availability of the sheet music for the Star Spangled Banner back then, but the Tate’s exhibition of literally centuries of cartoons, called “Rude Britannia,” makes the meaning of the former crystal clear.
The oldest works date back all the way to the 1650s, with graphic attacks (published in the Netherlands) on the dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell, and then flash forward through the early 18th century, where, as the idea of freedom of the press begins to take hold, nasty caricatures of the prime minister and his flunkies became more openly available. Going to the local print shop was something like watching Saturday Night Live on TV. Not only were politicians pilloried in print, but all sorts of fashions of the day…, which brings us to Yankee Doodle and his taste in sartorial decoration.
There’s an entire room dedicated to the late 18th century and Macaroni, which started out as the name of a club, and at the time the song was written was slang for “way cool” by those who thought they were in the know (that was just soooo 1767) and weren’t. The leading cartoonists at the time, such as James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson have a marvelous time skewering everything macaroni.
Unfortunately, what was funny in 1776 isn’t necessarily funny in 2010. Take for instance William Hogarth's A Rake's Progress (1733), which is an amazing series of paintings, but not funny in the least, however, VIS magazine’s (a British version of Mad) Roger Mellie’s ("The Man on the Telly") illustrated commentaries are.
George Cruikshank’s (1792- 1878) monumental The Worship of Bacchus (1862) is the centerpiece of the exhibition. In this giant painting, Britain’s best cartoonist of the 19th century goes after everybody and anybody. It’s savage, gross, and needs a guidebook, which is available in the gift shop.
As the exhibition progresses further in time, but easier the jokes are deciphered. There’s a room full of very soft-core porn, a fine dollop of post WW2 political cartoons, and various other sundries that are both fun and informative.
The show runs through September 5th, 2010.