Are paintings funny? Do they ever make you laugh? Perhaps it's hard to believe that the visual arts will produce anything so jolting as amusement. Perhaps we can't imagine that a painting will have have a pay-off, a punch-line – as if it were a cartoon. Painting is a serious art. Comedy seems unlikely. A gallery is not the sort of place you normally expect to find laughter.
Of course, in the everyday way, people are always laughing and making each other laugh. We're doing it practically all the time. We're looking for funniness wherever we can find it. It's a laugh a minute. From our earliest years we learn the skills and pleasures of amusement. Wit, puns, irony, absurdity, understatement, exaggeration, whimsy, vulgarity, sophistication, crudity, deadpan, throwaway, imitation, mockery, high camp, stoical grumbling, wryness, flippancy, teasing, cynicism, black humour, gallows humour – we have as many types of humour as the Eskimos were supposed to have types of snow. Our repertoire of comedy is so broad, it defies any theory, though many theories have been devised. There are too many reasons why we laugh our heads off. It's the grain of life.
And what about art? Again, it seems very promising. Comedy is everywhere. There is sitcom. There is stand-up. There are comic plays and comic novels and comic operas and comic verse and comic films – sometimes they're dumb, but sometimes they're works of genius. Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Mozart, Alexander Pope, Jean Renoir, they are comedians of the highest achievement, and they even make us laugh. But one form seems to be missing. When it comes to comic painting – well, who are the great pictorial comedians? Any obvious names? It's not just that they don't make the grade. They're don't come to mind at all. Is there some kind of problem? Or is it more like a secret?
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So here is a show that may finally open things up. Rude Britannia: British Comic Art appears at Tate Britain in ten days' time. And of course, as it title implies, its emphasis is on rudeness. Everywhere there's farting and obesity, satire and violence, obscenity and idiocy. There are grotesque penises and revolting politicians and insane bonnets. It's a kingdom of wild creatures, stretching from humour and absurdity to cruelty and horror, across 250 years. And what we're talking about, mainly, is the world of British prints, cartoons, illustrations and comics. They can cover the finest draughtsmanship of Aubrey Beardsley and the jolly crudities of Donald McGill's seaside postcards or Viz. But still, there is a strange omission in this history. There are very few actually paintings in British Comic Art. And surely British art must to be the place to look, if anywhere.
Of course, there is one triumphant example. Who could be overlooked? William Hogarth is the founding father of British art. He is also quite clearly a comedian. His painted sequences, like The Rake's Progress, Marriage A-la-Mode, and the Election Series, are rich scenes of 18th-century life, private and public. Stories, characters, metaphors, visual puns, fill his frames. Hogarth consciously originated this art. The artist called it "this uncommon way of painting" and "a field unbroke up in any country or any age". Nobody had done it before.
If you're looking for comic painting that aspires to high art, Hogarth is the one. He was famous above all for his mastery of psychology. His contemporaries compared him to Shakespeare. The comic novelist Henry Fielding gave his pictures the grand title "comic history-paintings". Hogarth's comedy rises above caricature and burlesque, rude humour and monstrosity. He is a true observer with a moral mission. Fielding explained: "He who should call the ingenious Hogarth a burlesque painter, would, in my opinion, do him very little honour: for sure it is much easier, much less the subject of admiration, to paint a man with a nose, or any other feature of a preposterous size, or to expose him in some absurd or monstrous attitude, than to express the affections of men on canvas. It hath been thought a vast commendation of a painter to say his figures seem to breathe; but surely it is a much greater and nobler applause, that they appear to think."
So comic painting arrives in British art with a fully-fledged theory and a genius. And then what happens? Almost nothing. It doesn't become a school. Hogarth continues to be admired, but nobody follows him up. The Royal Academy is founded, and it proclaims the ideals of the Renaissance, with heroic and mythical subjects. Some artists actually pursue this bold and visionary vocation. Mostly the money is in portraiture. Meanwhile the real high English tradition becomes landscape, Constable, Turner. It has many moods, but rarely a comic one.
As for comedy? It thrives elsewhere, in the graphic forms. Hogarth may have been opposed to caricature, but it becomes another of the great traditions of British culture. It was inaugurated by James Gillray, with his physical cruelty and his amazing visions of blood, turds, gases, and illuminations: and by Thomas Rowlandson, whose body- language alternates between grotesque mugs and flowing sexiness. Their successors – like George Cruikshank and John Tenniel – are less rude, but still fantastic. Then the late Victorians specialised in the sophisticated art of personality, with caricaturists like Ape and Spy and, above all, the terrifyingly wounding images of Max Beerbohm.
There is certainly little to equal this graphic line. Sometimes, it seems, the British cartoon is our real pedigree. While academic art was struggling hopelessly with imitation-Renaissance, Gillray came to the rescue. "Gillray's caricatures genuinely fulfil the requirements of high art", his contemporaries acknowledged. He dealt in "extraordinary graphic hyperbole, which almost met in its highest flights the outposts of the creations of Michelangelo". And looking with amazement through an album of Max Beerbohm, the art historian Bernard Berenson remarked: "The English Goya."
The genealogy fluctuates. The early 20th-century cartoonists were essentially innocent. Two have become proverbial – William Heath Robinson and HM Bateman. With Heath Robinson, it was the idea of a highly elaborate, wonky, homemade bit of gadgetry. With Bateman, it was the idea of a catastrophic breach of the social code, The Man Who... After the Second World War, a barbed and expressive style returned, in the draughtsmanship of Ronald Searle, Gerald Scarfe, and Ralph Steadman. Those would be my highlights, anyway. Rude Britannia has a rather random collection. It is guided more by tone than by talent, and its tone is narrow. It mainly believes in enjoyable but explicit outrage. It excludes the subtler cartoonists like a social observer like Pont or the pinpoint portraiture of Marc Boxer. And there is something wrong with the show's priorities when even greats like Beerbohm and Bateman and Searle have not found a place in its pantheon.
There have been wider ambitions. Bateman himself once proposed a grand project – the tradition needed an institution. In 1949, at the Royal Society of Arts, he discussed "Humour in Art", and declaimed: "Is it not high time that some official recognition of the worth of comic drawing was made? A permanent collection of some of the best examples should be got together and housed under one roof, forming a sort of National Gallery of Humorous Art. It is a fine art, but it has no central home or headquarters, as every other art and industry on the same scale has, where the best is preserved and made available to the student and the general public."
In a small way, his hopes have been realised. There is now the Cartoon Museum in the centre of London, though it's hardly an encyclopedic gallery. But even if Bateman's National Gallery of Humorous Art was fulfilled, it would be restricted to the comic graphic tradition. Granted, this art deserves a proper home, but its fame is more and more acknowledged. We know that cartoons are funny. It's great to see them, but they can look after themselves.
Meanwhile there is still the idea of comic painting, which nobody ever looks after. Perhaps it died out with Hogarth. Perhaps it turned into graphics. Or perhaps it's a blind spot, and comic paintings are hanging around in galleries, simply unnoticed. If we looked more carefully we might find plenty of good jokes. It's true that artists, historians, critics, never seem to mention this, but its total absence seems unlikely. Surely painting isn't the great exception. Still, the case needs to be proved. It requires, unfortunately, a proper sense of humour.
You could try to do it by following the rules. You would be able to identify a comic picture through a stock comic subject. If only it was so easy. There are plenty of subjects with ostensibly comic business: pranks, roguishness, mishaps, sauce, gross-out, randiness, voyeurism, intrigue, vanity, drunkenness, gluttony, ugliness, stupidity. But, the problem is, when they turn up in a picture, they may not be funny. Comic paintings mustn't be just "good enough". They mustn't rely on some formulaic joke simply to qualify.
Hold on to your standards. Don't accept that just anything will do, as if you had no judgement. Recognise that jokes in paintings, just as anywhere else, can be bad. Here is a bad one, for example. It's by Hogarth. It's a visual joke, which in a picture sounds quite promising. It shows a man out with its family, but he is standing in front of a cow, and its horns seem to be attached exactly to his head. In other words, this is a sight gag, and what it's tells us that he's a cuckold. It's a deliberate joke, unquestionably. It works, just about. But is it funny? No, it's like one of those rudimentary gags in a Jacobethan production when somebody does exactly the same joke, the cuckold gesture held up behind somebody's back; or even worse, the randy phallic forearm thrust.
Here's another visual joke, and a beautiful sight-gag. The artist is perhaps surprising: George Stubbs, the great horse-painter. Sure, he can compose his paddock scenes into the most magnificent designs, but is he a comedian? Try this. Dungannon, with a Sheep (1793) shows a thoroughbred and his woolly companion. It's like a serene farce. The disparity-joke doesn't take much noticing. Everything about the set-up says classical formality. The two animals are arranged in a frieze-like line-up, in dignified statuesque profile poses, and in a perfectly symmetrical equilibrium – except that, obviously, just at that point, there comes the fatal let-down.
The tall horse is "balanced" by a small facing sheep. But it's more than a matter of a visual anticlimax, or even the absurd solemnity of the sheep. This picture shows us a deeper joke too, in its sympathetic animal truth: the strange fact that nervous thoroughbreds do sometimes have a companion sheep (or goat), and it keeps them calm, it balances them. And within their oddness there is a true contentment in both creatures.
Or now take another joke, Henry Raeburn's The Skating Minister. This star attraction of Scottish art is indisputably funny. It depends on a convention: that figures in portraits should present themselves to the viewer still. But the subject here is not still. He presents a formal profile, but skimming past at speed. (See how the prim profile makes a pointing arrowhead.) And then – another surprise in portraiture – he's standing precariously on one leg. But that's not the full gag. For, in a sense, this vicar is indeed still. In relation to the ground he moves, yes, but as he passes us he is holding himself in a consciously graceful and static attitude, one stressed by the sharp black silhouette of his clerical garb.
What's more – and here is the joke's coup de grace – he can only maintain his pose and his poise because he has built up such a good speed. This is high-wire body-comedy: a wonderful fusion of showy elegance and exertion, composure and risky skill.
Two pictures: and they give a clue as to how a pictorial joke can strike a fine mixture of surprise and equilibrium. It might be the beginning of a show that has never been put together. It is a British tendency, a vein of high comedy in painting, just as our low graphic art is also a national tradition. It is a class comedy, a comedy of affectation and status and sensitivity, translated into visual terms. If we can recognise this language, we'll have discovered a new branch of art and a new delight.
But it isn't a definite category. Works must be identified through taste. A gallery of true comic painting will be persuasive only by demonstrating that individual pictures are actually funny. True, you have to let yourself go. When it comes to comedy on canvas, there is so much resistance and oversight and sheer disbelief, you need a bit of nudging. But, on the other hand, too much analysis and the joke will be spoiled. All together, it's a difficult argument.
Have a go, though. Try out some quicker jokes and take some further. There is Gainsborough's famous double portrait of Mr and Mrs Andrews, for example. Observe this pair, and the brilliant play of difference and likeness between them. Notice their costumes, their poses, their props, their shapes, and their slight exaggeration with which everything is characterised. See how the sharp-eyed couple matches the sharp observation of the scene they inhabit. There is a point where all the details resolve into a kind of punch line.
After this, there's no surprise in finding David Hockney on the bill. His favourite double portrait, Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy, is full of social detail, part stage directions, part lifestyle advertised, and is packed with abrupt objects, languid poses, and erect puss.
But what about Francis Bacon? He's another joker, though one in quite a different register. His name is famous for nightmare visions, but his figures actually deliver a energetic, stylish, alcoholic performance.
Enough, for the time being. We need another parallel show of British comic art, with paintings as opposed to cartoons. Or, alternatively, we need some general guidance in galleries. Nowadays there are plenty of captions on walls, telling us what's going on. They never tell us about comedy. In detail, that what would be wrong: when the painting is in front of you, you don't want a joke spelt out. But when we miss the effect entirely, we need help – and at the moment, we miss it over and over.
So think of films. They have posters that tell us what type of films to expect. They aren't necessarily stupid. They're useful. Comedy film posters, for example, always have a white background. Some people don't even know this, consciously, but these posters still have a subliminal function.
Likewise, with comic paintings, we require some kind of mark, to indicate our response. Gradually, we'll get used to it. Finally, art galleries will be filled with laughter like anywhere else.
Rude Britannia: British Comic Art, Tate Britain, London SW1 (Tate.org.uk/britain) 9 June to 5 SeptemberReuse content