Review: Beano exhibition at Somerset House

The new Somerset House multimedia exhibition, Beano: The Art Of Breaking The Rules, covers the quintessentially British comic from every angle, and doesn’t fail to deliver.

As someone who grew up with Dennis the Menace and The Bash Street Kids, I was expecting a serious nostalgia hit from an exhibition all about The Beano.

The Westminster exhibit begins by acknowledging its subject’s past. 

Who knew that before a certain black and red striped delinquent took centre stage, the publication starred an ostrich called Big Eggo?

The curators also address the colonial, 1930s stereotypes the comic once perpetuated.

An information board says: “They were wrong then and would certainly be wrong now.” 

Indeed there have always been traces of politics in The Beano’s cartoon capers. 

ICONIC: Bash Street Kids as part of Beano The Art of Breaking the Rules at Somerset House, London.
Credit: Stephen Chung for Somerset House

According to the exhibition, Minnie the Minx was an iconic figure in the riot grrrl movement of the 1990s. 

Her rebellious attitude and refusal to bow to gender roles chimed with its punk/feminist ethos. 

Social status is another theme that has run throughout the comics 83 year history, with strips like Lord Snooty playing on the differences between upper and working class life. 

The Beano itself found similarities between the aristocratic Conservative MP Jacob Rees Mogg and a character dubbed Walter the Softy so compelling that they outlined them in a tongue in cheek cease-and-desist letter, which is on display.

In 2021 the rotund schoolboy ‘Fatty’ became ‘Freddy’, to avoid accusations of size shaming.

Much like The Beano’s weekly edition, the show is bright and busy, and you can’t turn a corner without running into a giant cut out of Bananaman or Billy Whizz.

NOW OPEN: Beano’s Records, containing the Rebellious Jukebox. Credit: Stephen Chung for Somerset House

A scale model of Beanotown and a pretend record shop mean it almost crosses into the realm of theme park. 

A broad net has been cast in deciding what to include as part of this stimulating and diverse experience.

This is evident in work by Banksy and Turner Prize winner Martin Creed, which shares a similar madcap sensibility but is not directly related to The Beano. 

Lindsey Mendick displays sculptures that put a gruesome twist on everyday food items and a video screen presents the antics of taxi driver Mark McGowan, which blur the line between performance art and comedy. 

Other artists, like Horace Panter, have been explicitly influenced by The Beano.

He has painted Dennis the Menace into a parody of David Hockney’s ‘A Bigger Splash’. 

These days I’m more inclined to read Private Eye than the Beano for a laugh, but the pairing of colourful exhibits and cultural commentary means that ‘The Art Of Breaking The Rules’ can be enjoyed by children and those who want to relive their formative years. 

Beano: The Art of Breaking the Rules is open until March 2022

Images Courtesy of Somerset House

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