This October, Somerset House presents Beano: The Art of Breaking the Rules, a major exhibition celebrating the world’s longest-running weekly comic’s mix of mischief, mayhem and fun.
First released in 1938 and still crafted weekly from its home in Dundee, Beano has always applied one simple rule - rules should be broken. Set to be a show like no other, this landmark exhibition explores both Beano’s and contemporary art’s unruliness and irreverence, through the eyes of extraordinary artists who embody the Beano spirit of rebellion.
Contributors include young fiction writer and recent subject of Small Axe film Alex Wheatle, sculptor Phyllida Barlow, artist duo Gilbert & George, Turner Prize-winning artist Martin Creed, Oscar-winning animator Nick Park, artist Sarah Lucas, Fourth Plinth artist Heather Phillipson, comedian and pop star Chris Sievey (otherwise known by his alter-ego Frank Sidebottom), Bob Stanley of indie dance band Saint Etienne, Horace Panter of ska band The Specials, one of the few female artists involved in the original Pop Art movement Jann Haworth, painter Beryl Cook, Scottish multi-media artist Rachel Maclean, French artist Philippe Parreno, Swiss artist duo Fischli/Weiss, rising star Rene Matić, typography artist Babak Ganjei, video artist Ed Atkins and artists Ryan Gander, Bedwyr Williams and Hardeep Pandhal. Inspired by the antics of Beano’s mischievous heroes, they have all been brought together by their own spirit of rebellion and sense of playfulness, and their audacious artworks will be shown alongside original artwork from Beano’s archive, in an exhibition that is just as unconventional as its content.
Curated by artist and lifelong Beano fan Andy Holden, Beano: The Art of Breaking the Rules opens with a large selection of original comic drawings, never previously seen in public, chosen across its 4,000-plus editions (to date) and rare archive artefacts relating to Beano’s 83 years of irreverence. As well as Beano’s beloved band of characters - Dennis and Gnasher, Bananaman and Bash Street Kids to name just a few - it also introduces their maverick artists from Leo Baxendale, who brought Minnie the Minx to life, to Laura Howell, who draws the all-around rebel today.
Visitors will then take a trip through Beanotown itself with larger-than-life recreations of Beano’s most iconic backdrops as if stepping inside the pages of the comic. Hanging on the walls of Bash Street School, the homes of Gasworks Road and Bunkerton Castle, and situated outside on the streets of Beanotown, visitors will discover an eclectic collection of contemporary artworks from today’s greatest creative rule-breakers, who push the boundaries in their own original and wonderful ways. A number of works have been commissioned especially for the show and some – such as popular painter Beryl Cook’s illustrations for children’s book about Rufus the Rat – have never previously been released to the public.
Some of the contemporary artists will express a very personal – and frequently playful – appreciation of Beano, incorporating it directly into brand-new works, providing fresh perspectives on the comic masterpiece.
A new recording will feature young fiction writer Alex Wheatle telling his own fascinating story, focusing on how reading Beano became his safe space growing up in the notorious Shirley Oaks children’s home in Surrey. In a recent film about his life as part of the BBC’s Small Axe series, he is seen clutching a stack of comics as he is driven away from the home as a young adult – his most prized personal possession.
Artist Nicola Lane is creating a brand-new comic strip for the show, allowing time to enter into the frame by imagining Dennis as a 70-year-old. Beano introduced its most famous star in 1951 after the Beano editor, George Moonie, heard a music hall song called ‘Dennis the Menace from Venice’ – coincidentally in the very same week that the American comic strip of the same name also debuted in US newspapers.
The exhibition will also showcase award-winning cartoonist Steve Bell’s imagined strip of Bash Street Kids all grown up with Toots having divorced from Plug and Smiffy being a leading member of a government think-tank.
Recent Central St Martins graduate Rene Matić’s new commission for the exhibition observes the way that Dennis is always perceived as trouble, often before he has done anything at all, resonating with the experience of many who grow up Black-British. Dennis’s disregard for rules often sees him cast as the villain, even though it is the rules themselves that might be unjust.
Flo Brooks’ paintings depict his own experiences as a queer trans person, identifying with the character Les Pretend, who was introduced into the comic in 1990. Each week Les becomes a different animal, object or person by adopting its characteristics, suggesting we can become whoever, or whatever, we want to be.
Leeds-based artist Simeon Barclay presents a new neon, two-way mirror inspired by Bash Street Kids character Plug, who believes he is so good-looking he can smash a mirror by winking at it. The two-way mirror first shows a neon silhouette of Plug, before flipping to another neon sign saying ‘ugly’ below which the visitor can see their own reflection. Barclay challenges traditional conventions of beauty by taking the charge out of the word ‘ugly’ and instead owning it, just like Plug.
Inside a set of Beanos Record Shop (based on the former real-life store in Croydon, once the largest second-hand record shop in Europe), visitors will find a fully functioning jukebox curated by Bob Stanley of alternative pop band Saint Etienne. The jukebox will be filled with a selection of music that has been influenced by Beano’s riotous spirit and visitors are encouraged to take control of the sound of the show by playing their favourite tracks from it. Meanwhile, Horace Panter of two-tone and ska band The Specials makes a splash with a Beano pop-art makeover, as Dennis meets David Hockney in his LA swimming pool.
Whilst not all of the contemporary artworks feature overt references to Beano, they all share a rebellious sensibility, often mixing comedy with subtly coded with social commentary, touching upon Beano’s recurring themes of Class and Identity, Education, Feminism, Art and Food (in fact Beano is short for ‘bean feast’, a 19th-century term for a celebratory meal).
An original model of Heather Phillipson’s Fourth Plinth piece, THE END, will sit inside Beano’s editor’s office. At first glance, an appetising blob of whipped cream topped with a juicy cherry has, in actual fact, a fly squatting on one side and a drone perched on the other, and the cream is melting around the base of the sculpture, almost on the verge of complete collapse. The seemingly mundane subject of food is also used to cultivate such tensions in a new painting from recent RCA graduate Olivia Sterling, featuring a slapstick scene from a children’s tea party to address identity in modern-day Britain.
An archive of street artist Mark McGowan’s (aka Artist Taxi Driver) stunts is displayed for the first time, from pushing a peanut along the floor with his nose across London in protest at student debt, to attempting to cartwheel from Brighton beach to London to highlight the damage caused to British shores by people taking stones home.
Bedwyr Williams’ new series of drawings take a satirical, sideways look at the players of the ‘art world’ and their affectations, whilst Cory Arcangel’s re-creation of Arnold Schoenberg’s Three Piano Pieces, op. 11, edited from YouTube’s sub-culture of piano-playing cats, pokes fun at this cultural fetish.
Winner of the Max Mara Art Prize for Women, Emma Hart’s surreal speech bubbles put regional accents in our mouths, exploring how our pronunciation of certain words often reveals our position within a class structure and questioning whether we can ever fully escape the position in society into which we are born, while French artist Philippe Parreno’s mass of speech bubbles suspended in the air are devoid of any words or thoughts, allowing audiences to imagine the conversations themselves.
At the end of the exhibition, artist Peter Liversidge – who created a colourful patchwork of signs in east London paying tribute to NHS and key workers, which went viral last year – hosts an interactive workspace. A new rulebook for life will be created by current Beano readers in advance of the exhibition, where it will go on view. After seeing this new world order, visitors can choose the rule that they’d also like to live by and get it painted onto a protest sign live in the exhibition, to go straight up on display.
Visitors can further unleash their rebellious streak by slinging rotten tomatoes at the great (virtual) works of art using that iconic Beano weapon, the catapult, and enjoy the splats and splots of their destruction.
The special exhibition shop will feature an exclusive range of limited-edition Beano x Somerset House items alongside a selection of original and inspired gifts for all ages, from clothing, accessories, collectables and limited edition prints to homewares, games, books and stationery.
Radley London will be the official handbags and accessories partner of the exhibition, presenting a playful limited-edition collection of bags, cardholders and purses featuring iconic Beano characters and motifs for the duration of the exhibition. Walker’s Shortbread will be the official shortbread partner, offering their premium selection of pure butter shortbreads, from traditional hand-rolled Highlanders to Raspberry Swirl Shortbreads, all still made to an original family recipe in the Scottish village of Aberlour.
Many of the new artist commissions have been kindly supported by the Adonyeva Foundation.
The Kusuma Trust’s support is making Peter Liversidge’s interactive workspace possible.