Bevis Hillier

A Scottish master of caricature

Bevis Hiller on a new collection of John Kay's artworks

If, in Victorian Britain, you did not fall in with the oppressive religiosity that prevailed, you were in danger of becoming a pariah, like Charles Bradlaugh in politics and T. H. Huxley in science.

If, in 20th-century Britain, you did not subscribe to abstract expressionism, Dada urinals, Pop Art, Op Art, minimalism, ‘installations’ and every subsequent development (I am tempted to say imposture), you were likely to become a cultural pariah. The arts establishment was very like the Victorian religious establishment. It too had — and has — its high priests, with Sir Nicholas Serota of the Tate as its Pope or Archbishop of Canterbury; its anathemas and excommunications. It too had its mystique, its articles to be taken on faith: for example, the notion that when you stood in front of a Rothko of a dark red smudge on top of a paler smudge, or indeed a totally black Rothko, you were being granted some sublime, transcendental experience.

Born in 1940, and disaffected from almost all contemporary art (excepting most of Hockney, Lucian Freud and James Reeve), I felt resentful at being destined to grow up in this artistic swamp. I thought I would have been much more at home with the Pre-Raphaelites or the Impressionists.

There was, however, one shining exception to the artistic degringolade: the cartoonists. In such men as Ronald Searle, Gerald Scarfe, Thelwell, Wally Fawkes (‘Trog’), Bill Tidy, Larry and Peter Brookes (whose work I was already admiring on New Statesman covers in the 1970s, long before his present avatar as a superb satirist on The Times) we have had cartoonists to rank with James Gillray of the 18th century or Sir John Tenniel of the 19th. If the criteria were solely aesthetic, I would far rather own a Searle than a Rothko.

In modern art, distortion is mandatory, arbitrary and ruinous.

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