Portraiture (Caricature)

December 29, 2011

Armstrong’s How to Draw ‘Em. Melbourne, The Lothian Publishing Company, 1944. 24pp. oblong format

It’s amazing what documents pass from one generation to the next, despite teh exigencies of moving house and deaths in the family. This little booklet was part of the artistic “furniture” around me when I was growing up. I can’t tell whether my father bought it at the time of publication (still only a teenager at the time) or whether he needed it to boost his personal artistic arsenal during his “Mad Men” advertising career in the 1950s. Perhaps it was still in print when he did some formal painting study in the 1950s.

Armstrong’s book has only just come back into my possession and still bears my father’s sketching in the chisel-edged carpenter’s pencil of the time. Even as a child, I have always been seized by the venomous tone of the text accompanying the caricatures of political demons of the time. Tojo, Hitler, Goering and Stalin are all drawn by Armstrong (a local, Australian version I guess of Arthur Szyk) as well as leaders of the Allies. The war was something the family didn’t discuss and nor was the Great Depression which preceded the birth of both my parents, but drawing its demons in particular must have offered some sort of catharsis when news was received only via newspapers, radio or cinema shorts.

At the moment I’m up to my neck in reading for next year’s university courses and so far have run through the following: Irene Nemirovsky, David Golder; Irene Nemirovsky, Suite francaise; Simone de Beauvoir, The Blood of Others; Agnes Humbert, Resistance: Memoirs of Occupied France; Simone de Beauvoir, War Diary and Bruce Marshall, Yellow Tapers for Paris. The best introduction to the artistic production of the period has been Frederic Spotts’ The Shameful Peace, which describes how French artists coped with German occupation. The literary accounts (almost) all have in common descriptions of the Fall of Paris in June 1940 and the ensuing  pegaille, the mad mass migration of Parisians from their homes, joining refugees from northern France, Holland and Belgium. Out of all this reading has come some familiarity with the likes of Daladier, Gamelin, Petain and Laval, the last of whom features in the Mick Armstrong  book of caricatures (though he’s hardly mentioned at all by name in the literary accounts).

Armstrong presents the Golden Mean as a structure or foundation for each of the portraits, but moves the features around wildly in accord with the exaggeration underlying caricature. His foundation “mark” or “stroke” is a single, curved and splayed pen stroke. This stroke doesn’t translate perfectly to pencil, but that’s neither here nor there. Armstrong elicits a lot of verimisimiltude in three ways: special attention to the eyes (his eyes are never alike) and a stereotypical shape in the mouth – the “pose” most often seen in photographs and filmclips; the left hand side is never symmetrically identical to the right. 

Armstrong seems to have been very keen (or at least his publisher was) in introducing sketching to children and young people; Armstrong also wrote a book on drawing kangaroos presenting to children some quite sophisticated techniques such as enlarging drawings, building up from skeletons and experimenting with different textures of sketching paper. I gather that in 1944, young people kept sketchbooks the same way their contemporaries collected autographs. Autograph books and sketchbooks full of caricatures of politicians, actors and celebrities of the day have almost entirely disappeared since!

I’m interested in that aspect of portraiture dealing with capturing a likeness. I’m also curious about imagined three-quarter portraits deriving from Armstrong’s front and side views (I imagine these are better conveyed in his published collections of cartoons) and the sort of sketching from the imagination engendered by Riven Phoenix’s Structure of Man drawing course.


The “Armstrong” refers to Mick Armstrong, who drew political cartoosn for the Melbourne Argus newspaper between 1936 and 1957.  Design & Art Australia Online indicates he was born in Paddington in 1903 (possibly the Royal Hospital for Women there), lived in Tasmania and had his first cartoon published in The Bulletin when he was just 16. His active period was from about 1919 to about 1978. His work is held in the collections of the National Library of Australia, the Australian War Memorial Canberra and the State Library of Victoria. This 1944 publication may have derived from the success of a 1941 exhibition, War Cartoons and Caricatures of the British Commonwealth held at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Canada, in which he was represented along with 17 others including Norman Lindsay. Aged in his early fifties, he was hung along with many, many others of his contemporaries in a Blaxland Gallery exhibition, Fifty Years of Australian Cartooning in 1964.

Mick Armstrong’s published work

Blitzy, a Third Volume of War Cartoons, 1942.

Mein Franks – War Cartoons. 1940.

Civvy Symphony – the World Since V.P. Day. 1946.

War Without Tears: 100 of the War’s Wittiest. 1942.

Stag at Bay: War Cartoons. 1944.

Havoc! War Cartoons by Armstrong. 1939, 48pp.


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