'Rude Britannia' spotlights artists' comic view of British politics, culture

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Some countries overthrow their politicians. Some endure them. In Britain, they just laugh at them.

The renowned British sense of humor is on display in a new London exhibition that charts 300 years of the anarchic artistic spirit that produced the political satire of William Hogarth and "Spitting Image" -- as well as the sheer silliness of Benny Hill.

"Rude Britannia," which opened Wednesday at the Tate Britain gallery, is a feast of irreverence and bad taste that asks whether there is a distinctively British sense of humor, and examines how humor is intertwined with the country's cultural and political history....

The exhibition begins in the 17th century, when printing technology first allowed the mass production of cartoons and political broadsides. Then, as now, cartoonists took aim at politics, the economy and social ills.

One of the earliest works shows Oliver Cromwell, who overthrew the monarchy, donning the regalia of a king. The more things change, many of the artists here seem to say, the more they stay the same.

Some of the images are tastelessly timeless, like the anonymous 18th-century etching "Idol-Worship or the Way to Preferment," which shows gentlemen kissing the enormous posterior of Robert Walpole, a politician widely regarded as Britain's first prime minister.

Throughout the exhibition, crass toilet humor intertwines with the political. The crude slapstick of TV's "Benny Hill Show" or the "Carry On" movies is as central to the British comic tradition as the exalted Hogarth....

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