Various artists: Inked: Australian Cartoons. National Library of Australia. Until July 21.
Cartoons are a mirror of society - its aspirations, taboos and sense of humour - as well as a barometer of its social tolerance.
Historically, the great cartoonists of Australia, including Phil May and Will Dyson, were cult figures with the public who left with us the first draft of the social and political history of their day.
In my generation, Bruce Petty and Michael Leunig have seized that mantle and have been the voice of humanity and common-sense moderation at a time when political life was frequently brutal, ugly and lacking in human values.
As I am a resident of Canberra, Geoff Pryor, between 1978 and 2008, and subsequently David Pope, not infrequently set the mood of my mornings through their cartoons published in The Canberra Times.
Like their illustrious predecessors, their output is prodigious, their insights barbed and pointed, and their cursive lines fluent and marvellously expressive.
The exhibition at the National Library is drawn from their modest holding of 14,000 cartoons. I say "modest" compared with the vast holdings of the Library of Congress, The Getty or the British Museum, but adequate from which to select a survey exhibition of cartoons in and about Australia, curated by Guy Hansen.
The show ranges from the events associated with 1788 and goes through to the present.
I don't think that it is just me, but the show is not particularly funny, and for the hour that I spent in the exhibition I cannot recall a single person laughing. Perhaps it was an off day during an election campaign in Canberra, but what attracted me was the lucidity, focus, incisiveness and irony in this selection of 200 years of Australian cartoons.
Georgian humour and the gift for satire, which found such a brilliant culmination in the caricatures of Thomas Rowlandson and James Gillray, surrounded the efforts to establish a penal colony in New South Wales. Well-known gems such as Robert Sayer's Black-eyed Sue and Sweet Poll of Plymouth taking leave of their lovers who are going to Botany Bay (1792) dribble with sentiment and heavy-handed symbolism. \
The buxom wenches are consoled through swigging "blue ruin" as their lovers in shackles are ordered to board a convict ship. Gallows with a dangling victim in the background point to the alternative to Botany Bay.
Phil May was imported from England by The Bulletin in December 1885, at their cost, with an offer of an unprecedented salary of £20 a week. As a democratic Englishman, together with many of his English colleagues, May was anti-monarchist, as well as openly racist and anti-Semitic.
The Chinese question touched on many issues, as May shows in his The Mongolian octopus - His grip on Australia, from the 1886 Bulletin, its tentacles include immorality, Fan-Tan (Chinese gambling game), Pak Ah-pu (Chinese gambling lottery), cheap labour, customs, robbery, opium, bribery and disease. By 1888 the anti-Chinese sentiment in Australia approached hysteria, when Britain insisted that Chinese from Hong Kong had to be given right of entry as British subjects.
As one moves through the exhibition, many of the masters of Australian caricature are encountered, including S.T. Gill, Will Dyson, Ruby Lind, David Low, Stan Cross, Martin Sharp, Bruce Petty, Alan Moir, Leunig, Ron Tandberg, Pryor, Judy Horacek and David Pope.
Not all of the cartoons on display may make you laugh, but most will make you think and surely this is not such a bad thing.