'Laugh Lines' exhibition celebrates Australian cartooning

3 February 2016

Some of Australia's most iconic cartoons and illustrations will be on public display for the first time as part of a new exhibition at the University of Sydney

Featuring first edition copies of May Gibbs' Boronia Babies and Bib and Bub, Norman Lindsay's The Magic Pudding, Noel Cook's Kokey Koala and R.B. Clarke's Boofhead, the free exhibition Laugh Lines and Other Distractions takes a fond look back at the cartoons that shaped our nation.

Drawn from the University of Sydney's Rare Books and Special Collections, the showcase pays tribute to Australia's rich and at times controversial publishing history. Among the 80 items on display are rare early copies of The Bulletin, The Comic Australian, The Gadfly and Oz Magazine.

"Laugh Lines presents a complex image of our national identity, with all its discontents and problems," said co-curator Associate Professor Peter Kirkpatrick, an expert in Australian cultural history from the Department of English.

"As well as the comic, there is a darker side to cartooning presented here. A lot of the cartoons from The Bulletin and Smith’s Weekly are full of cultural stereotypes that we'd no longer accept."

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A distinctly 'Aussie' comic humour

Historic milestones captured in the collection, including representations of Diggers on the front in World War I, are treated with classically irreverent Australian wit.

"Black humour has often been taken as a keynote of Australia's humour in general, and there's an element of that running right through the comics," said Associate Professor Kirkpatrick.

"This sardonic streak has its roots in an older version of Australian nationalism, particularly the kind of masculine, bushman-cum-ANZAC identity forged in publications like The Bulletin and Smith’s Weekly."

The collection also includes a reproduction of Australia's most famous cartoon, Stanley Cross' ‘For gorsakes, stop laughing: this is serious!’ Thought lost since its publication in 1933, the illustration was recently re-discovered in the collections of the National Library of Australia by exhibition co-curator Lindsay Foyle. It will be the first time the iconic image has been on public display in nearly 80 years. 

A reproduction of Stanley Cross' famous cartoon 'For gorsakes, stop laughing: this is serious!' is among the items on display.

Comics by renowned artists on display

While attendees may be surprised to see works by famous artists Norman Lindsay, Martin Sharpe and previously unseen pieces by Albert Tucker among the cartoons, many early artists found their economic base in cartooning, said Associate Professor Kirkpatrick.

"Before the rise of Australian art in international markets, Australian black-and-white artists and cartoonists were regarded as world standard, right from the beginning of the 20th century."

Laugh Lines co-curator Lindsay Foyle, a Walkley-nominated cartoonist, said the retrospective shows the political power of cartoons through the ages.

"Australians take cartooning for granted. It's only when they come to an exhibition that they appreciate how much it's been a part of the media in Australia over the past 100 years," said Foyle, a cartoonist for New Matilda.

"People enjoy politicians having the hot air let out of them and the disrespect the cartoonists often show to serious-minded individuals. Cartoonists are really only putting a visual side to people's natural tendency to laugh at life."

The exhibition was curated to accompany the conference, ‘Unfunny: The Limits of Humour’, presented by the Australasian Humour Studies Network, running from 6-8 February 2016.

Alan Moir, chief cartoonist for the Sydney Morning Herald, will officially open the Laugh Lines and Other Distractions exhibition on Monday 8 February.

Event Details

What: Laugh Lines and Other Distractions exhibition

When: Monday 8 February 2016 until 31 August 2016

Where: Level 2, Fisher Library, The University of Sydney

Contact: Rare Books and Special Collections, 02 9351 2992

Emily Cook

Media and PR Adviser
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