Recently, I was looking through the photographs I had taken since the 1960s and it struck me that many of the pictures had typographical messages in them that sharpened the satirical nature of the picture. Looking through them with a new eye I realised that this was a fundamental aspect of my work that was always more graphic than painterly. I think that I felt very early on in my artistic life that the range of emotions negotiated by painting was too restricted to explain contemporary urban life. I needed some more rational and intellectual stimulus that gave political context to the image. This accounts, to some degree, for my inordinate liking for Banksy, Charlotte Salomon and the great photomontage artist Heartfield, and most of all, for all kinds of poster art.
One of the most positive influences I picked up during my time at college was from an Alphonse Mucha print on the wall of the seminar room where I was lectured for my thesis. I was mesmerised by the poster but most affected by the idea that Mucha could happily incorporate the brand name of RIZLA cigarette papers into his 'painting' - in my time RIZLA had a completely different meaning than it did in fin de siècle Paris. From the time I left Hornsey until 1990 my artistic output consisted almost entirely of political posters.(1)
In political posters words are central to the message. I found this out to my cost on a number of occasions when I tried to represent ideological messages solely with visuals - images and even the juxtaposition of images are open to too many interpretations. This is primarily why a great, political, photomontage artist like Heartfield, who used words only rarely, focused on simple images with which you could not argue.
My work as a political poster artist was stressful. The almost assembly-line production of images that told historic stories and the invention of slogans that spoke pages, never stopped being difficult. I spent hours, days and weeks during the time that I made posters, wondering about the conjunction of words and pictures. My reverie drifted over comics, advertising, Russian, Chinese, Cuban and Paris '68 posters, pop artists like Peter Blake and simply odd things like the connection between a newspaper headline and the front page photo.
So when I met Emma Holister, virtually, and saw her Dr Mephisto series of poster-like paintings, I fell immediately in love with her dark gothic romanticism, wit and sense of popular story-telling (2). Oddly, although these poster-paintings were idiosyncratic compared with most contemporary painting, compared to the rest of Emma's oeuvre her Dr Mephisto series was risibly 'straight'. Her other paintings were at best surreal and at their most imaginative evinced a cross between Frida Kahlo and rare plumbing catalogues brought to earth by aliens. With their focus on broken bodies, architectural plumbing and peculiar metamorphic stories about her own body's relationship to illness, animals and emotions, her paintings were outside of most art history dialogues. What did hold all these paintings together, however, to present some kind of genre, was the fact that they all told stories, mainly about women who didn't fit in. They either involved a subconscious narrative of Emma's reflections on her own body, or, more rarely, stories about Emma's confrontation with bureaucratic social forces.
Given the drift of Emma's Dr Mephisto paintings, I wasn't surprised to see that she began producing cartoons. However, cartoons are quite different from posters or pop-art paintings. Cartoons factor in another concept to the artist's creativity: humour. From the first time that I read them I found Emma's cartoons funny. The humour was, however, quite difficult to analyse. It was a while before I saw why the humour worked.
After all, Emma had chosen a little-known cul-de-sac of civilisation to hang out her shingle and give foundation to her jokes. Many people have not heard of the Health Freedom Movement, let alone can articulate its philosophy in enough detail to introduce humour to the subject. I quickly realised that one could find Emma's cartoons funny without knowing anything about the Health Freedom Movement. Humour, and especially satire, needs to contain universal considerations to make it work: pathos, exaggeration, ridicule and an overt or covert sense of antagonistic conflict between the forces depicted.
Emma's cartoons were funny because they had these universal concepts factored into them; they could have been about competition snooker and still been funny. None of the 100 or so male characters in her cartoons believe they are saying anything even vaguely humorous; they are, at least to themselves, very sombre and deeply learned characters. The middle-aged men have bored themselves into baldness, the younger men are so myopically arrogant and condescending, they address mainly women as if they held the key to an understanding of the universe with the learned and unquestioned language of science. They speak with a language within which the word and the concept of humour do not exist. The language rolls out of them as if they were Daleks and none of them appears to realise that from the perspective of the real, emotional world they are talking rubbish and making themselves a laughing-stock.
While the men are boring by design the women are slightly different; they come in different shapes and sizes and appear to have reached the cartoons by a Beryl Cook-type process of stereotypicalisation. They come as if life has beaten their original shape out of them; some, having not cared enough for themselves, are dough-like, while others, perhaps past pictures of Emma herself, are stick-insect thin with knobbly knees and elbows, women on the edge of eating disorders.
Perhaps more than this, Emma's acute ability for depicting condescension and distilling the heart of the message of her speakers, means that most of the characters with authority in the cartoons speak with a peculiar robotic somnambulism. The thesis they express, taken in its entirety, is the case of the Health Freedom Movement. Within this arena Emma runs over everything in her path: over-prescription, denial of adverse reactions, the invisibility of the toxic environment, competitiveness of pharmaceuticals and dirty tricks against vitamins and foods. The fantastic negativity of modern medicine and its failure to mount even the first step towards healing is proven over and over in her bubbles.
Slightly unfortunately, Emma is totally honest and consequently always makes herself vulnerable in the depiction of the characters that are her; they are slightly too thin or nervous and awkward and very occasionally apparently trusting of medical authority. Nevertheless this vulnerable persona is necessary so that she can explore the exploitation, the relationship in her art between the self-satisfied male doctor and the nervously worried woman patient.
Most adults, coming to these cartoons for the first time, will see that the experiences described in them have been lived through and both Emma and Emma's characters are wry and knowing, expressing opinions from the vantage point of experience and not in danger of being taken on a ride for a second time. Emma hits the nail on the head every time, she makes her character and therefore the sympathetic reader absolutely confident of a position of resistance. The ironic naivety with which her statements or questions are framed scream to the reader that she has done this before, been here, had this done to her, read the book, bought the tee-shirt and her cartoons are now back to wreak vengeance.
I was always intrigued at college by people who could draw a shorthand note of some mechanical or architectural feature, a skill that is an absolute requirement for a cartoonist. I had a very cerebral approach to drawing, could rarely draw anything without looking extensively at the real thing and then only draw it in its very real detail. To be able to securely intimate things with a few lines must be a real joy to the creator and certainly separates the Holisters from the Walkers. Emma's cartoons appear at first glance to be very flat, they are not at all gothic and apparently have no chiaroscuros or distance within them. However, looked at more closely, they do in fact present a very unified picture of a world making three-dimensional sense. A good example of this draughtswoman's deftness and the point I am making can be seen in the cartoon Fridge Contents. In this cartoon not only do the eggs look as if they are set back in the fridge door but the insignificant metal stanchion attached to the wall behind the telly, really does stop it from falling to the floor.
But from the beginning it was the texts that really drew me to Emma's work. Being a writer, I have struggled all my writing life with the problem of making fewer words have more meaning. I haven't achieved success in this area, always, even now in my dotage, I over-write, again and again and again and again and again. I would recommend Emma's balloon text to any budding writer or journalist, because she utilises immense intelligence in extrapolating the bland truth from the millions of words and phrases any writer might grab, like gnats from the still air. As well, and this is yet another thing I have never been able to fathom, her balloon texts fit snugly into the balloons and then the frame of the cartoon.
I have always thought that it must be incredibly difficult to describe, subtly, using drawing, the variety of characters necessary in a range of cartoons. Of course we know that all cartoonists have a particular individual style that gives a disposition and attitude to all their characters and that this style is very subjective. All Gerald Scarf's characters appear to be caught in violence and trapped in stress, ready to vomit their neuroses out of the page. The late John Glasham's characters hint at that disordered life beyond the fringe of anarchic actions and scratchy characters. While a cartoonist like MATT in the Telegraph gets his ordinary urban straights, as well as his hooded urban dispossessed, to issue forth with highly intellectual disquisitions on various subjects that lend them a gloss of mystical surrealism.
Emma's characters come from the warm and well-fuelled but seemingly asocial and insular world of the middle-class victim of medical negligence and pharmaceutical exploitation. Usually, however, this is not the middle class or the middle ground of Posy Simmons but a world in which the immodest masculine medic breaks into shards of glass when faced with a female asking dissenting questions. In fact, this is the world of the radical, dissenting female fighting against the heart of darkness that is modern allopathic, industrial medicine.
There is a word that industrial scientists have begun to use to get themselves off the hook over the last few years: 'robust'. They apply this word to any of their own information that they feel insecure about. In fact, the more insecure they feel with regard to their scientific processes and their evidence, the more 'sinewy' becomes their language. Even the use of this one word is a rare adventure, for most scientists, into the world of emotional articulation. Many scientists have a diminished understanding of both language and culture and in the case of science, the robustness they talk of is very superficial, usually only as deep as the slew of words they can throw over the material reality to hide their work's failings.
Robust is, however, a good description of Emma Holister's cartoons, the arguments are muscular and sinewy, the characters strong, and as a whole each frame presents a tough picture of the war zone that is contemporary modern medicine. In fact, Emma might easily have called her book of cartoons, Reports From the Front or Cartoons From The Edge and it is very rewarding to think that all those who read them will not only be titillated but will come away from the book with the beginnings of a new understanding of medicine's new world order, and might hopefully be frightened into action by it.
Martin J Walker London, November 2008
1. These posters can be seen in the Victoria and Albert Museum, the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam and the University of London Theatre Archive.