30 Years of Steve Bell

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Nicholas Garland writes in the exhibition catalogue that accompanies this exhibition that "Steve Bell is the greatest political cartoonist of the day". I would also suggest that he is perhaps one of the most important artists of his generation.

I don't mean this in the narrow sense that his drawings and mark making are those of an artist and craftsman of the highest quality who has, over the years, honed his considerable artistic ability to produce work of the finest quality.

Nor am I referring to his marvellous ability to include in his imagery his huge understanding and knowledge of the work of other artists who he regularly gives reference to in much of his work. Indeed the front cover of the catalogue is filled with some of Bell's most famed characters and himself in a hilarious reference to Toulouse-Lautrec's Au salon de la rue des Moulins.

I would argue that his real and lasting significance lies in his production over the last 30 years of an outstanding body of biting political satire that has, at times, rendered into image and word the emotions and thoughts of much of the population.

Like all great satirists Bell populates his cartoons with seemingly absurd displacements: John Major - that grovelling and lily-livered Tory prime minister - wearing his pants on the outside of his trousers, the portrayal of a Tory party conference as a day with the zombies, Bush and Blair as one-eyed cyclopes who can't understand why the world can't see things the way they do.

Such displacements are part of the optics of satire. The actual behaviour and actions of his characters, drawn as they are from reality, are for Bell far more implausible than any he has built in his imagination and depicted in his cartoons.

His refusal to suffer the political cant and murderous ideology of ruling elites has allowed him to consistently produce work that lays bare the pretensions of the powers-that-be with an immense and uncompromising audacity. What we see is not always pretty. However, with Bell it is invariably funny, even if in the middle of our laughter we see before us a grim truth.

The great strength of his work is that he does not set out to lecture the viewer in a didactic fashion but rather uses his fearless ability to strip off the veneer that the great and the good seek to cover themselves in. His concern is the posture in which his subject stands naked between costumes.

Walter Benjamin pointed out that the great satirist "confines himself to the nakedness that confronts him in the mirror". Bell completes this task with the self-confidence of a man who has seen through and understands the barbarous hypocrisy of his age and its apologists.

30 Year of Steve Bell is at The Cartoon Museum until 24 July