Despite working within the limits of a silent trade, and one constantly subject to censorship, cartoonist Louis Hellman still takes on the establishment, and with it the moral conscience of an era, writes Clare Melhuish
'Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit', they say, and libel will not be tolerated, but satire has its own particular set of rules. Cartoonists are paid to stick thorns into the flesh of the establishment and win plaudits when they do it well. However, as Louis Hellman revealed in his talk, 'All Hellman Let Loose', at the Bartlett on 15 May, celebrating 40 years of cartooning, they do not go uncensored. Indeed, he has had 'continuous trouble with censorship' since starting his weekly cartoons for the AJ in the 1970s, especially when advertisers have been on the receiving end of his humour. That, it seems, is beyond the pale as far as the publishers of commercial magazines are concerned.
As the AJ's letters page has shown recently, Hellman's twisted take on things may induce tears of laughter and joyous recognition in some people, but paroxysms of indignant rage in others. Is that an indication of his brilliance or simply the function of a self-confessed 'miserable old sod'? For Hellman is the first to recognise that there are limits to cartooning - it's 'always bashing', focussing on 'the negative bits and failures'. But, at the same time, it does embody a sense of persistent, idealistic yearning for a better world, and certainly that is evident in the enormous body of work which Hellman has produced over the years.
Hellman started drawing cartoons at the tender age of eight.He thinks he was inspired, or intrigued, by the caryatids on St Pancras Church, near his home - Posh, Baby, Sporty, and Scary Spice, as he puts it. While working for his art O level he became intrigued by the work of Hogarth, particularly the election sequences, and subsequently by cartoonists such as Osbert Lancaster and Saul Steinberg.
Having enrolled at the Bartlett, he participated in the 'regime change', which jettisoned the traditional Beaux-Arts training, and ushered in Modernist idealism. 'We all wanted to do Modern architecture, ' he says. 'Megastructures were all the rage.' But having returned from a year travelling round Europe, he experienced the revelation that 'Modernism was just another style', and life as a cartoonist took off with an outpouring of biting satirical drawings lampooning Modernist ideology and its manifestation in iconic projects, such as the South Bank complex, Park Hill in Sheffield and the Knightsbridge barracks overlooking Hyde Park (immortalised in his Exposure in the Park cartoon, where the AJ insisted on clothing Hellman's original trouserless protagonist lying on the grass).
Archigram, too, came under fire, with a sendup of Ron Herron's Walking City project in a cartoon featuring a queue of people at a busstop in the foreground, complaining that, after a long wait, 'three come at once'.
By 1968, Hellman had become involved in community action, and worked as an architect for the LCC Schools Division until 'eased out' by the GLC.At this point he started to do some research into the origins of Modern architecture, and produced a book of cartoons tracing the history of architecture, which 'tried to show that architecture was about ideas and social pressures'. His criticism of Modernism for 'trying to redesign people' as 'modular men' continued, leading him squarely into the arena of the disabled-access issue - 'Modern architecture just took over the elitist, inaccessible forms' of the past, he argues.
But during the 1980s, his output reflected a general shift in the architecture debate away from social issues and towards a preoccupation with style wars and the image of the architect. Prince Charles' famous speech provided 'lots of mileage'; while Hellman's own cartoons seemed to embrace more of an aesthetic agenda, especially in the 'Archi-têtes' series, where individual architects' heads are composed out of elements of their buildings.
These are brilliant efforts, manifesting not only a considerable knowledge of each architect's oeuvre, but also managing to combine and present those elements as an architectural composition, which captures the essence of each individual's public personality. Hellman admits he 'had trouble for years with Zaha, because the person doesn't go with the buildings', but he demonstrated an assured touch with a whole series of other prominent architects. On the other hand, the Archi-têtes do not compete with the main body of his work at the level of sheer, hard-hitting architectural commentary.
Hellman himself suggests that 'social conscience died a death' at this time, acerbically pointing out the contrast between the achievement of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, the world's most expensive building, and the plight of those, for example, whose lives were later to be wrecked by the Mozambique floods. As he puts it, 'you won't get struck off if you design a torture chamber', in the way that you would if as, say, a doctor, you were shown to have abused your professional position. It doesn't matter what kind of product the architect produces nowadays, he suggests, 'so long as it's beautiful, aesthetic'.
Take the issue of tall buildings on London's skyline - 'no-one talks about what these things are for, only the aesthetics'. In other words, who cares if they embody the stranglehold that corporate capital and exploitative ideology sustain over the public interest, the common good, if they have an interesting shape or intriguing, innovative cladding?
It seems ironic that, in this context of mute public amorality, it should be left to the cartoonist, plying a trade without words, to take on the role of spokesman, and the responsibility for the moral conscience of an era; but only within the parameters of a format endlessly open to censorship, treated as just as much of a commodity as any other consumable. On the Evening Standard, as Hellman revealed, cartoonists are expected to produce six ideas by lunchtime, out of which one will be selected, according to the whim of the editor, to be drawn up by the end of the day - the remainder, presumably, are thrown into a dustbin of soon-to-be-forgotten protests and statements of moral intent.
But within the architecture world, it must be time for some serious introspection and self-questioning if, as Peter Cook, introducing Hellman's dramatically underattended lecture, suggested, 'the London scene is a quizzical business - not a matter of right and wrong'.