Politics of Cartoons

Politics of Cartoons

At the start of the sixties, among the faces of ordinary people, athletes, film actors and popular musicians, photographs if Nikita Khrushchev appeared on the cover of magazine Mladý svět. Compared to the carefully retouched portraits of his predecessor, these were remarkably civilian portraits, presenting the Soviet statesman in a good mood at a meeting with American journalists or "at a friendly lunch" in the company of Hollywood filmmakers. [1]

Sympathies were particularly elicited by his peaceable speeches in which he challenged Western democracies to economic competition. Khrushchev was also the first Soviet politician whose caricatures were allowed to appear in the Czech communist­‑era press. Starting in 1958, he was drawn with a certain partiality by Miroslav Liďák. In one he had Khrushchev donning "seven­‑year" shoes to catch up to the West, in another he put a tennis racket in his hand, so he could launch a spaceship all the way to the Moon with his "cannon­‑live serve". One of the key opponents of the Soviet peacemaker in the drawings of not only Czech cartoonists was the West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who in his first official speech to parliament declared that Germany would never return to its wartime past. [2]

At the turn of the 1950s, shortly after the Federal Republic of Germany was formed, a great number of punishments levelled against former Nazis in the previous years were annulled, and in Western Europe attempts began to rehabilitate the extreme political right. Cartoonists in the Soviet bloc as well as other left­‑leaning illustrators reacted to this by linking Nazi symbolism to Adenauer's portrait. For example, Antonín Pelc drew the chancellor as a fur rug under the feet of American imperialists. [3] Though ten years later the bluntness of these attacks had not relaxed, their style had changed. Much like the painters and sculptors of the "tame generation" [4] followed up on the legacy of interwar modern art, cartoonists returned to graphic shorthand and markedly stylised shapes. They sought out artistic symbols, but also began to use photographs again. Bohumil Štěpán grafted a picture of Adenauer's head right onto a torso shaped like a Swastika, and Jiří Kalousek, pupil of Antonín Pelc, worked in a similar manner with photographic portraits in his series entitles "The Chancellor's Shapes".


Miroslav Liďák, caricature of Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, 1960, ink drawing, 290 × 420 mm, Museum of the Nový Jičín Region – Museum in Frenštát pod Radhoštěm.

Miroslav Liďák, "Scatter feed for the birds!", caricature of Konrad Adenauer from Miroslav Klivar's book Karikatura bojující [Caricature doing battle]. Prague: Nakladatelství československých výtvarných umělců, 1963, p. 124.

It is not possible to prove whether such works were ordered or whether they came from the authors' own convictions. One thing that is certain is that they represented relatively easy earnings. When, in autumn of 1963, Konrad Adenauer stepped down from the office of chancellor, Mladý svět published an obituary in which a representative of Czech cartoonists said goodbye to a "long­‑time provider". [5] The author of this caricature was Miroslav Liďák, who was also aware, and said out loud, that the head of the West German government was too easy a target: "It is not enough to just know how to attack the West," he declared in an interview for Tvorba in 1961. "There is nothing particularly difficult about taking shots at Adenauer, [...] but let us also take shots at ourselves." [6]

At the start of the sixties, foreign­‑policy and anti­‑fascist cartoons were an officially supported genre that, while it had a minimal effect on real politics, had considerable prestige within the official Czechoslovak arts scene. Attesting to this was the nationwide exhibition The Art of the Caricature (1960) and the major show of political cartoons To Be or Not To Be (1961), which the press praised as a "hard­‑hitting and artistically valuable collection, whose authors are redefining the criteria of caricature, while also driving forward with their drawings, collages and photomontages" [7]. Some of the works shown evinced more a growing fondness for grotesque scenes and strange "inventions", such as Born's machine for producing German soldiers. This hybrid between a mainframe and an alchemist's lab, replete with dials and retorts, evidently worked on a simple principle: an infant was placed in the opening, then being transmuted by alchemical substances – blood, soil and sweat – into a soldier in full uniform.

Adolf Born, caricature from the catalogue To Be or Not To Be. Havlíčkův Brod: Krajské nakladatelství, 1961, p. 14.

Jaroslav Malák, drawing and collage from the series "Farewell, Army!", published in Miroslav Klivar's book Karikatura bojující. Prague: Nakladatelství československých výtvarných umělců, 1963, pp. 150–151.


When the Prague­‑based gallery Fronta launched its second exhibition of Polylegran in September 1961, political cartoons were not omitted, but the artists had evidently been inspired more by funny ideas and stylistic presentation than combative content. It is no surprise that the question arose in connection with this exhibition as to whether political cartoons could still be effective when it was becoming a tastefully mounted and framed artwork. In his review of the exhibition, Jaroslav Papoušek [8] pointed out the dominant concept of caricature as a weapon that "people do not generally hang in their living room", and warned illustrators against a decorativeness that could obscure their aim. [9] Art historian Dušan Konečný was quite clear on the ideal social application of caricature, recommending the introduction of satirical window displays and streetside display cases such as were allegedly used in the streets of Soviet towns, factories and even kolkhozes. The work of professional cartoonists was to be used to "decorate" village newspapers and thus help "caricature to reach the most remote places in our country, so as to better fulfil the great mission owed to it in our society". At the end he expressed the wish for cartoonists to form an "organisationally solid, operative and militant collective". [10] If the illustrators of Mladý svět read this appeal, they were not particularly enthusiastic about it. They had barely managed to achieve a certain degree of independence from the demands of the Dikobraz editorial board, and now they were to directly enter the services of agricultural collectives and manufacturing enterprises? Though they did indeed form a group, it would be difficult to characterise it as a military rank and file. It was more of a purpose­‑oriented association of kindred cartoonists who gathered at the studio of Jiří Kalousek. They had already adopted the fixed name of Polylegran in December 1960 and collectively became part of the section of painters and graphic designers in the Czechoslovak Association of Visual Artists. [11] Despite the fact that they prepared joint exhibitions, they also acted as rivals, applying to competitions of illustrated humour organised under the Haškova Lipnice National Festival of Humour and Satire. The first year, focused on popularising Hašek's work and the ideologically conditioned interpretation thereof, took place in the summer of 1959. The next year the programme was considerably more diverse. The Rococo Theatre attended with its popular children's performance Emil the Robot, as did Semafor with its no less popular musical comedy The Man from the Attic and the series of songs Zuzana is Home Alone. Also part of the festival was a competition for the best work of art "in the field of humour and satire". The jury, at the time chaired by the doyen of Czech political caricature Antonín Pelc, awarded first prize to the creative duo Neprakta. Second place, awarded with a prize of 6000 Czechoslovak crowns, was split between Svatopluk Pitra and Adolf Born along with Bohumil Štěpán. The festival ended with a two­‑day exhibition of Pelc's satirical drawings and Neprakta's "humorous images" at the Lipnice school. The last day it was even viewed by Deputy Prime Minister Václav Kopecký, who held back no praise for the illustrated jokes of the winning pair. [12] The recognition of the once omnipotent party ideologue opened the doors of exhibition halls and publishing houses for Neprakta. In Havlíčkův Brod, a catalogue of jokes entitled 106 from Neprakta came out (1961) and the national enterprise Kniha organised a travelling exhibition.

In subsequent years of the Lipnice competition of cartoonists, it was essentially the same group of artists that divided up the prizes. Aside from those already mentioned, these were František Skála, Jaroslav Malák, Vladimír Jiránek, Jiří Jirásek, Josef Žemlička and Karel Nepraš. Miroslav Liďák also took part in the second year of Haškova Lipnice, becoming an ever more pronounced artistic commentator of political events. He had a clear idea of this work even before he joined the Mladá fronta publishing house in 1956 as artistic director. In one of his letters from the time, he confided to his childhood girlfriend that he was not interested in bulletin boards against bad habits in manufacturing, but "the greatest underachievers in particular". [13] He considered drawing cartoons a service to the public that he was willing to perform only in keeping with his own conscience and discretion: "If I could draw for free, it would be ideal [...] I do not want to do what is ordered and instructed." [14] When he began working on the editorial board of Mladý svět at the end of the fifties, he did not have to illustrate provided ideas, but he could only select topics determined by the shifting line of party politics. Supervising the content of all media at the time were the plenipotentiaries of the Main Administration of Press Oversight [15], who stepped in in the interest of protecting state, economic and service secrets. In the majority of cases they held back texts, photographs and drawings that were at odds with what were called "general interests". Attesting to how much that category was unpredictable and fatally dependent on Soviet policy was the case of one of Liďák's caricatures of Nikita Khrushchev. This took place in the autumn of 1960 during a meeting of the UN General Assembly. When talks on the peace proposals of the Soviet leader became deadlocked, Liďák did not hesitate and drew Khrushchev as an Indian chief offering the peace pipe to the representatives of the other world powers – the presidents of the USA and France and the British PM. Eisenhower, de Gaulle and Macmillan however were sitting to the side and ignoring the peace offering. He presented the drawing for approval to the editor­‑in­‑chief of Mladý svět, who at the recommendation of the Communist Party press department decided to put off publishing it until the official result of the talks was known. Liďák was evidently sure he had gauged the situation properly, and despite the ban from the "superior authorities" took the cartoon to the editorial board of the weekly Tvorba, which regularly printed his work. The reservations to the new contribution were not about the content of the drawing, but just the way comrade Khrushchev was depicted. [16] Liďák complied with the objections and the modified cartoon came out on the cover page.

Miroslav Liďák, "Non­‑smokers", cartoon on the cover page of weekly Tvorba XXV, 1960, no. 40.

Mladý svět, which in the meantime continued with commentary on the UN negotiations, accused Harold Macmillan of supporting West German policy, in the Eastern Bloc called revanchist and militaristic, and Miroslav Liďák portrayed the British PM as a drunkard addicted to Munich beer. The magazine published this caricature without problems. [17] In the meantime however, further dialogue had taken place between Khrushchev and Macmillan, which was official declared "fruitful". [18] "Non­‑smokers" thus became a politically undesirable affair. The author was accused of refusing to obey the decision not to publish the drawing and Mladá fronta ceased to employ him. [19] Moreover, the Communist Party Central Committee issued a ban on publishing any more of Liďák's work. Documents preserved in the artist's estate attest to the fact that the case was not one of rebellion or deliberate provocation. Shortly after he was fired, Liďák wrote a letter addressed to the party Central Committee in which he stated that he had received no opportunity to defend himself. He expressed the conviction that he had committed nothing that should prevent him from "continuing to fight alongside the Communist Party" and asked for the case to be reviewed. The letter ended with a strongly worded declaration that the work of a political cartoonist loses all meaning if he may not be published. [20] Although he did not succeed with this request, the "Non­‑smokers" affair evidently significantly contributed to him starting to draw commentaries on the domestic political situation. At that time, such cartoons only existed as illustrations of what were called "undesirable phenomena", the list of which was determined by ideological commission. Although voices could be heard ever more frequently that it was not enough to "draw a bureaucrat, say, and under the picture for certainly to write: Hey, bureaucrat! You're ugly, aren't you?" [21], no significant alternatives to this tame criticism made their way into print. It was nevertheless expected of satirists that they would not only express short­‑term courage, but also bravery and a willingness to "wrestle with things that are unpopular". [22]

Miroslav Liďák, "Small Czech man", 1963, coloured ink drawing, 420 × 600 mm, Museum of the Nový Jičín Region – Museum in Frenštát pod Radhoštěm.

At the start of 1963, a new figure began to appear in Liďák's drawings: an ordinary citizen who is afraid to step out of the lee of his private existence. In one cartoon this "small Czech man" stands by the base of the monumental Stalin statue, a hammer hidden behind his back, and wavers: "should I...shouldn't I...?" [23] Though the cartoon came out more than a quarter year after the monument in Prague had been demolished [24], the topic was still too hot. The right to interpretation and evaluation of the past was reserved for the Communist Party leadership and no one else could comment on this work, least of all a magazine the party had founded through the Czechoslovak Association of Youth. The ideologues repeatedly reproached the editors of Mladý svět for writing one­‑sidedly about the life of youth, disparaging the officials of the Association and exhibiting tendencies "to cheap sensationalism and escapism" by giving priority to interest in Western popular music and new films over news from Soviet culture. [25] They threatened personnel changes if this trend were not to stop and the attention of journalists were not to focus on the labour education of youth and manufacturing issues. [26] Not only did they criticise news reports and essays, but also illustrated humour, in particular Liďák's cartoon "Workers – the foundation of our society" [27], which presented a muscular worker with a throng of clerks sat on his shoulders. "What is this saying?" was the rhetorical question posed by party Central Committee member Jiří Lukáš [28], also quite rightly answering it: "One of us works while ten are goofing off." He considered Liďák's monuments, for example one of the torso of a statesman with a screw sticking out of the shoulders on which a new head could be attached as needed, to be an attack on the affairs of a party that used unscrupulous methods not only to get rid of political opponents, but also its own loyal members. [29] The declaration of another party ideologue that "drawings are not to be riddles" and that they cannot be used to "disparage the party struggle against the cult of the personality" [30] merely confirms that Liďák's cartoons were sufficiently communicative without making it possible to catch the author in his words.


[1] Mladý svět I, 1959, no. 39, cover.

[2] Keith Lowe, Zdivočelý kontinent. Evropa po druhé světové válce [A Continent Gone Wild. Europe after World War II]. Prague – Litomyšl: Paseka, 2015, s. 145.

[3] Drawing by Antonín Pelc, "American Siesta", Dikobraz VII, 1951, no. 15.

[4] Josef Brukner, "Krotká generace (Poznámky na okraj mladého výtvarnictví)" [Tame Generation (Notes on the Margins of Young Fine Art)]. May III, 1958, no. 9, p. 496–497.

[5] Drawing by Miroslav Liďák, Mladý svět V, 1963, no. 42, p. 2.

[6] Miroslav Liďák, "Caricature from the profile and from the party", Interview with Miroslav Liďák and Pavel Hanuš. Recorded by J. Nový. Tvorba XXVI, 1961, no. 51, p. 1235.

[7] "Prague exhibitions in April". Výtvarná práce IX, 1961, no. 9, p. 8–9.

[8] Jaroslav Papoušek studied Prague's Academy of Fine Arts and at the start of the sixties worked as a freelance sculptor and cartoonist. Later he worked with Miloš Forman and Ivan Passer as a film screenwriter.

[9] Jaroslav Papoušek, "Polylegran 2". Mladý svět III, 1961, no. 41, p. 12.

[10] Dušan Konečný, "On the problems of our contemporary caricature ". Výtvarná práce VIII, 1960, no. 17, p. 9.

[11] The founding members were Adolf Born, Miroslav Liďák (Haďák), Vladimír Hlavín, Oldřich Jelínek, František Skála Sr, Jiří Kalousek, Jaroslav Malák, Bedřich Kopecný and Jiří Winter (Neprakta), Ctirad Smolka, Bohumil Štěpán, Jaroslav Weigel and Josef Žemlička. Mladý svět II, 1960, no. 50, p. 2.

[12] Jiří Winter – Jaroslav Kopecký, Tučná linka černou tuší aneb Nepraktycké vzpomínání [A thick line of black ink, or Neprakt­‑ical recollections]. Prague: Epocha, 2012, p. 110–111.

[13] Museum of the Nový Jičín Region – Museum in Frenštát pod Radhoštěm, estate of Miroslav Liďák, letter to Libuše Bartlová, 1954.

[14] Ibid.

[15] An unofficial institution that in the years 1953–1966 carried out censorship of all media.

[16] Museum of the Nový Jičín Region – Museum in Frenštát pod Radhoštěm, estate of Miroslav Liďák, letter to the Central Committee Communist Party typed copy, 2 pages, 12 October 1960.

[17] Drawing by Miroslav Liďák, "Mr Macmillan in the hall – or what alcohol does to people", Mladý svět II, 1960, no. 42, p. 5.

[18] Museum of the Nový Jičín Region – Museum in Frenštát pod Radhoštěm, estate of Miroslav Liďák, letter to the Central Committee Communist Party typed copy, 2 pages, 12 October 1960.

[19] He later copy edited illustrated humour at Mladý svět as an external collaborator.

[20] Museum of the Nový Jičín Region – Museum in Frenštát pod Radhoštěm, letter to the Central Committee, Communist Party typed copy, 2 pages, 12 October 1960.

[21] Miroslav Drozd – Miroslav Gottlieb, "Satire is a serious matter ". Talk with writers Václav Lacina, J. R. Pick, Milan Schulz. Tvorba XXV, 1960, no. 52, p. 1228–1229.

[22] Ibid, p. 1229.

[23] Drawing by Miroslav Liďák, "Small Czech man ", Mladý svět V, 1963, no. 3, p. 16.

[24] The Stalin monument in Prague was destroyed in November of 1962.

[25] Museum of the Nový Jičín Region – Museum in Frenštát pod Radhoštěm, estate of Miroslav Liďák, paper from the 4th congress of the Czechoslovak Association of Youth in April 1963.

[26] Museum of the Nový Jičín Region – Museum in Frenštát pod Radhoštěm, estate of Miroslav Liďák, entry from the minutes of the Mladý svět editorial board with representatives of the Communist Party Central Committee, 7 March 1963.

[27] Drawing by Miroslav Liďák, "Workers – the foundation of our society ", Mladý svět V, 1963, no. 9, p. 16.

[28] In August 1968 he became a broadcaster of the occupation Vltava radio station, was expelled from the Communist Party and in the post­‑invasion press he was characterised as a typical careerist of Novotný's regime. Cf. Josef Macek et al., Sedm pražských dnů 21.–27. srpen 1968. Dokumentace [Seven Prague Days 21–27 August 1968. Documentation]. Prague: Academia, 1990, p. 257, 290–291.

[29] Drawing by Miroslav Liďák "Grateful Nation", Mladý svět V, 1963, no. 7, p. 16.

[30] Museum of the Nový Jičín Region – Museum in Frenštát pod Radhoštěm, estate of Miroslav Liďák, entry from meeting of Mladý svět editorial board with representatives of the Communist Party Central Committee, Prague 7 March 1963.


The text is a sample from the book Karikaturisti, which was published in 2018 by Paseka in cooperation with the VUT Faculty of Fine Arts in Brno.


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