Bush, Blair, But Not Muhammad

Martin Rowson says he doesn't mind getting hundreds of angry e-mails when he draws President Bush.
Martin Rowson says he doesn't mind getting hundreds of angry e-mails when he draws President Bush. (By Chris Jackson -- Getty Images)
By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 24, 2006

LONDON, Feb. 23 -- When the political cartoonist Martin Rowson draws President Bush with blood on his hands, he gets hundreds of angry and obscene e-mails. But he doesn't mind, he said, because "the purpose of satire is to attack people more powerful than you are."

Still, Rowson said, he would not have drawn the cartoons of the prophet Muhammad that were published by a Danish newspaper and led to often violent protests around the world. Rowson said the cartoons insulted a minority group -- "poor and powerless Muslims in Denmark."

Rowson and other prominent British cartoonists spoke about their craft Tuesday at London's Cartoon Museum, which officially opened this week and is the nation's first museum dedicated to cartooning, caricatures, comics and animation.

The museum has more than 250 original works on display and about 1,000 more in its collection, plus a library of 3,000 books, including rare first editions. It houses cartoons lampooning political leaders from Napoleon to Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Oliver Preston, a cartoonist and the museum's chairman, said the word "cartoon" comes from the Italian cartone, a preliminary sketch for a fresco. The English word made its debut in 1843 in the British humor magazine Punch, which published a satirical picture about a competition to supply the new Houses of Parliament with frescoes. That picture became known as "Cartoon No. 1."

Earlier works were called caricatures, Preston said, including pieces at the museum by George Cruikshank, whose drawing was so influential that in 1819, he received a royal bribe of 100 pounds not to "caricature His Majesty in an immoral situation."

Preston said the museum's opening date was set long before the Danish cartoons controversy exploded. The museum is intended as a showcase for artists' work, not to stir up political controversy, he said, and contains nothing like the Muhammad drawings.

Steve Bell, who, like Rowson, draws mainly for the Guardian newspaper, has been portraying Blair for nearly 15 years. He is best known for his caricatures of a maniacal Blair with enormous teeth and ears and one wild-looking eye that is much larger than the other.

In 2000, Bell drew a cartoon titled "The End of The Affair," featuring a demonic-looking Blair driving a wooden stake through the heart of a green-skinned, cadaver-like former prime minister Margaret Thatcher in a casket. More recently, he drew an excited Bush having relations with a camel, which was supposed to symbolize Iraq.

But even as a believer in harsh political satire, Bell said, he would not have drawn the Danish cartoons, including one that featured Muhammad with a bomb in his turban. He defended the Danish newspaper's right to publish the drawings, saying limitations on free speech should be "self-imposed."

"The limits are one's own integrity and one's own beliefs," he said. "Sometimes you want to offend. But you target the powerful, not the weak. In Denmark, those cartoons tapped into a lot of the nasty, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim things going on."

Hunt Emerson is a largely non-political cartoonist whose best-known works are 30 books of comics, including a spoof of D.H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover" that is displayed at the museum.

Emerson said that a few years back he contributed to another satirical work titled "Outrageous Tales from the Old Testament," which featured "blood and guts" biblical stories not normally highlighted in Sunday school classes. He said he got a few letters, "but nobody went out burning embassies."

Emerson also said he would not have published the Muhammad cartoons, partly because they were "not very good" and partly out of fear of violent reprisals. "As a cartoonist, I have quite a few views about it," he said. "But as a human being, I'm not going to put me and my family in danger. So you might say they're winning."

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