Limits of Common Sense

Years Of Wrath: A Cartoon History: 1931-1945.
by David Low.
With a Chronology and Text by Quincy Howe. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1946. 320 pp. $3.75.

The success of Low’s cartoons with the newspaper public would suggest that that public is more sensitive to art for its own sake than its members themselves realize.

Despite the claims made on the jacket of this latest collection of his cartoons—to the effect that Low “combines technical mastery of his medium with a political intelligence that puts many of our contemporary statesmen to shame”—his insight into world affairs turns out to be only what might have been expected from any liberal with decent instincts and a large endowment of common-sense humor. Low has never, in reality, seen beyond the headlines, and his penetration of events is rarely superior to that of his readers. Altogether without any positive political ideas, and equally devoid of political imagination, he has manifested political intelligence only by being more afraid of fascism than Stanley Baldwin and Chamberlain were.

In my opinion the attraction of Low’s cartoons consists in some part in the vividness with which they mirror, to the mind raised on Anglo-Saxon common-sense liberalism, the exact quality of its own attempts to make sense out of contemporary history. But I doubt whether this reflection of futility would have gone down so smoothly with newspaper readers had it not been embodied in, and thus transcended by, art. For Low is at least a remarkable draughtsman, a worthy continuator of the great but still largely unrecognized 19th-century English tradition of popular graphic art.

Examine almost any one of his cartoons and you will see how little its effect depends on its “idea” and how much on the drawing and design. Franco, at the end of the war, trying to buy a ticket for the “Victory bus” from a ticket-seller who happens to be Stalin; Franco carrying a stick of confetti labelled “War on Japan (perhaps)” and a tag on his cap saying “Hooray for Liberty”—anybody could have thought of that. What is funny and even illuminating in an inexplicable way is the frowzy, wistful, pint-sized figure of Franco (in 1937 Low drew him much larger) standing in his silly uniform in the gray penumbra of the left foreground, while in the blank white background anonymous civilians crowd aboard a bus. Linear definition, composition, and the distribution of darks and lights drive home something that is more satisfying to the emotional requirements of the occasion than any possible real insight could be. Like every first rate journalist, Low provides us with a proper state of mind, not with truth or information; and in the day-to-day struggle, the right emotion is a more urgent necessity to the newspaper reader than right understanding.

Since the beginning, Low’s art has developed steadily toward greater crispness, economy, and broad, dramatic effect. In the early 3’s there was still something about it of the jiggly-jerkiness of British bourgeois cartooning in its post-Edwardian decline. That style had a tendency to bog down in the narrative detail and in human-all-too-human sentiment. Low escaped from it quickly, but retained its concern for the likeness, and for that which is instantaneously, incandescently characteristic. By 1931 his squat little Japanese soldiers are depicted with such an infallible eye for the right detail, whether of anatomy or uniform, that they become more Japanese and more soldier than the reality itself.

In dealing with public personalities, Low is usually most telling when they happen to be British—naturally he understands his own kind best. Now and then, however, he manages to nail Roosevelt, Goebbels, Mussolini. And he always gets those he can see around and behind—Franco, for instance, or any other small, shabby potentate. But he is completely taken in by the fellow-travelers’ version of Stalin as a benign tomcat; and while he can get the Germans and the German situation, he is incapable of seeing Hitler as anything more than a popinjav, a mincing hotel clerk. Perhaps it is too much to ask of common sense that it comprehend the lumpy, fermented, “soulful” vulgarity which seems to have been the Fuehrer’s most personal and most German quality. And perhaps the failure to get Hitler marks the limit of Low’s talent. After all, he is no Daumier.

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