Francis Wheen celebrates Andrzej Krauze, illustrator and satirist, whose work appears in a retrospective show this month
At a party in the spring of 1990, I was accosted by a morose-looking journalist from the newly launched Independent on Sunday. “Got a bit of a crisis on our hands,” he mumbled, taking a hefty, anaesthetizing swig of red wine. “We need someone to come in tomorrow and write the diary column. Don’t suppose you could do it, could you?”
The crisis had been prompted by the paper’s eccentric decision to entrust the diary to Edward Steen, who had worked with great distinction for many years as a correspondent in central and eastern Europe. After only a few weeks in the job, he was already yearning to be in Vienna, Budapest, Warsaw – anywhere, indeed, except in London, turning out brief items that might amuse the liberal middle classes over their Sunday breakfasts.
When I arrived at the office two days later, Steen was clearing his desk. “Don’t worry,” he said, happily brandishing his air-ticket to Vienna. “I’ve left quite a few stories to help you fill the column for the next week or two.” Not so: the file named “Diary Ideas” on his office computer was all but empty. But Steen left me a far more valuable legacy from his brief and ill-advised foray into gossip-writing: he had persuaded the editor to have the column illustrated by Andrzej Krauze, a Polish émigré of his acquaintance who had taken refuge in London after General Jaruzelski’s declaration of martial law in 1981.
I had seen some of Krauze’s work, and was vaguely aware of his reputation as a courageous satirist whose drawings for the Polish weekly Kultura had infuriated the communist censors. A good man, clearly; but how could he possibly understand the political and cultural references in a British newspaper diary? Had he ever heard of Lord Goodman, Lady Olga Maitland, Jeffrey Archer, Edwina Currie or Kingsley Amis? Would I be obliged to include a weekly item about the latest scandals and feuds in Warsaw so that Krauze had something to illustrate?
All such worries evaporated when this beaming, bear-like figure came into the office on that first Friday afternoon. Cheerfully ignoring my nervous, apologetic stammerings (“Er, this is a story about Margaret Thatcher – she’s the prime minister… and Prince Philip – he’s the Queen’s husband…”), he gathered up a sheaf of copy and departed to a distant desk in the art department. Minutes later he returned with three or four sketches, each of which not only caught the flavor of my text but added extra seasoning that transformed a mere snack into a classy bonne bouche.
He treated my diary stories as if they were fables by Aesop or La Fontaine, seeking out the essential moral or the universal theme and thus giving them a resonance and depth they scarcely deserved. What I had feared would be a problem – Krauze’s unfamiliarity with our parochial minutiae – turned out to be a virtue. His Friday visits became the highlight of my week.
Since 1989, he has worked for the Guardian, which has turned out to be his natural home: like Araucaria’s crosswords or Steve Bell’s cartoons, his illustrations both reflect and enhance the paper’s enduring, distinctive characteristics. In politics and journalism, the mark of true intelligence is not what you think but how you think, and although the Guardian has certain essential ideals (a hostility to “antiquated and despotic governments”, a commitment to “just principles of political economy”, a zeal for “civil and religious liberty”, to quote the summary from its 1821 prospectus), what inspires the readers’ loyalty and affection is not so much the paper’s editorial stance on particular issues as the style in which those issues are reported and discussed – cool, skeptical, free-thinking, sometimes wry or whimsical, yet also passionate when roused by folly or injustice. Like the Enlightenment, the newspaper is not a manifesto but a state of mind; and whatever Krauze’s subject – from New Labour to the New World Order – his ironic, cosmopolitan intelligence never fails to enlighten.
The gorgeous catalogue for a Krauze exhibition held in Warsaw two years ago includes an essay by the French publisher François Maspero, who mentions that the book Andrzej Krauze’s Poland has a preface “by the celebrated English writer George Mikes”. This ought to raise a guffaw from admirers of Mikes, a Hungarian journalist who came to London for a fortnight in 1938 to cover the Munich agreement and never left. True, he became very anglicized indeed, but he never lost the outsider’s eye that made his book, How to be an Alien, an instant classic: even after four decades here he would observe, with incredulity, those characteristics the English never notice since they take them for granted. (“On the Continent, people have good food; in England, people have good table manners… Continental people have a sex life; the English have hot water bottles.”) Mikes also noted, in the introduction to How to be an Alien , that a foreigner in this country “may become British; he can never become English”. Even without knowing Krauze’s background, I think I would be able to guess from his drawings that he hadn’t been brought up in England – and not merely because their bold lines and cross-hatchings are so distinctively “continental”.
Some English cartoonist-illustrators rely on a talent for caricature, others on a facility for one-liner gags. Krauze can do caricatures and jokes, of course, but his real genius lies in the creation of vivid metaphor: not just the weary old shorthand of Fleet Street cartoonists down the ages (the TUC carthorse, the British bulldog) but absurd, sometimes scary imagery that owes more to writers such as Bulgakov or Alfred Jarry than to Jak or Mac. It is no surprise that Krauze has illustrated Kafka’s short stories and Bob Dylan’s lyrics, nor that in the late 1970s he drew the pictures for an underground Polish edition of Animal Farm. Don’t be misled by his relaxed demeanor and warm smile: this is a man who both works hard and thinks hard, as proved by his dozens of brilliantly apt drawings in the book Introducing the Enlightenment. Maybe he hasn’t heard of Lady Olga Maitland, but he can hear deeper echoes that might otherwise have been inaudible to the author whose article he illustrates.
In short, Krauze is both an artist and an intellectual; but he wears his learning lightly. Like all good intellectuals, he keeps Occam’s Razor within easy reach, ready to slash through obfuscation and reveal a plain truth in all its simplicity – or perhaps one should say “in black and white”, since he employs black ink more tellingly than any other illustrator I know. Leafing through his portfolio, I happen upon a picture that illustrated a Guardian feature on press coverage during a general election. Three figures are standing on ballot boxes in an empty landscape, each reading a newspaper in search of illumination; but from the centre pages comes only a torrent of black ink, spattering and indeed blinding the hapless electors.
There is no question where Krauze’s sympathies lie: whether in communist Poland (whose citizens he regularly depicted as unhappy sheep led by hungry wolves) or in the groovy modern democracy of New Labour’s New Britain, this remarkable artist has always accepted the duty that is more traditionally assigned to journalists, though many of them prefer to duck the challenge: he speaks truth to power.
To order a copy of Andrzej Krauze Drawings 1970-2003, for £9.95 with free UK p&p, call Guardian Books on 0870 066 7850. This book is published to coincide with an exhibition running at the Newsroom, 60 Farringdon Road, London EC1 3GA, from March 13 – April 12. Admission is free.