The sorrowful dominatrix: cartoonists Steve Bell and Martin Rowson on drawing Angela Merkel

Sixteen years is a very long time in politics, and since 2005 we’ve had Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron (and Nick Clegg), Theresa May and Boris Johnson – while the Germans have just had Angela Merkel. It usually takes time to get the hang of drawing a politician, particularly one from a foreign country, and Merkel was no exception. I’d only just about got a handle on the SPD’s Gerhard Schröder when he was replaced by the CDU’s first female leader, and my first attempts were a little shaky and somewhat speculative. Was she a Thatcherite? Would she be pro-Bush, like Blair, or continue Schröder’s opposition to the war in Iraq? Would she be easy to draw?

She turned out to be interesting rather than easy, with large, generous features, hooded, quite kindly eyes with splendid bags under them, a prominent, rounded chin, and jowls to die for. One has to be very careful while drawing her that she does not come out looking like Kenneth Clarke. I must confess now that I’ve always found her hugely attractive – unlike Clarke – and her features always put me in mind of a particular old friend. Conservative she may have been, but definitely not a Thatcher. She seemed far too rational and pro-Europe for that.

The first cartoon in which I actually managed to get a grip on her likeness was in 2006, where, unusually, she appeared as a dog. In a reworking of Briton Rivière’s Victorian masterpiece Sympathy, the role of the little girl on the stairs is taken by George W Bush. Merkel, ever the pragmatist, was far less critical of Bush’s foreign policy disasters than her predecessor, though by no means as slavish as Blair, who is jealous, having had his nose up Bush’s arse for the preceding six years.

Europe is a constant theme when it comes to Merkel, particularly what she would see as her spirited and principled defence of the nascent single European currency. Others, tuttavia, may have interpreted her as Europa, screwing the Greeks rather than the bull, and this is where the figure of the dominatrix of austerity, carrying a whole display team of gimps, comes into play.

Helmut Kohl, her gigantic predecessor as CDU chancellor and former mentor, often fell into the same role, in a leather one-piece bathing suit, fishnet tights and cute pickelhaube helmet – with, in his case, even more disastrous consequences for the inhabitants of the former Yugoslavia, rather than the Greeks.

Per me, Merkel’s finest hour, after her extremely guarded response to Cameron’s feeble attempts to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s membership of the European Union, came in response to the terrible refugee crisis of 2015 per 2016. Instead of closing the borders, she offered to receive one million new migrants. Though laudable, as a conservative politician this caused her severe electoral problems and a challenge from the far right at home.

She narrowly held on to power nel 2017 in coalition with the SPD, but announced that she would not be standing for a fifth term, which brings us neatly up to date with a reprise of Sympathy in 2019, where a much older Merkel takes on the role of the girl on the stairs forced to bear the attentions of the monstrous Arse Dog Johnson, getting Brexit done all over the carpet. Emmanuel Macron looks on in disgust.

Among the repertory company of political actors cartoonists feature in their output, we can’t help developing favourites, and often feel a sense of personal loss when they inevitably shuffle off the world stage. This is wholly divorced from either sympathising with or viscerally loathing the politics – or even, quite often, the individual. It’s just the buzz we get from drawing them.

When John Major resoundingly lost the 1997 elezione, Steve Bell told me he had lost his reason for living because of the Zen-like karmic thrill he got from doing the holes in Major’s airtex underpants. Likewise, George Osborne’s departure from frontline politics still has me grieving: I loved drawing his head because it clearly has no bones in it. And I’m feeling a similar pang of regret at the imminent retirement of Angela Merkel, who I’ve been drawing regularly since 2008.

None of us, ovviamente, can do much about the way we look, though public figures in positions of power often try – either through botox or Photoshop. But while Silvio Berlusconi’s eyebrows got pulled ever closer to his dyed hairline, it’s significant that the woman he described as “an unfuckable lard-arse” didn’t appear to be that bothered about the face life had dealt her, clearly part of her political shtick as an ordinary and homely Ossi who, nonetheless, quietly succeeded in dominating Europe for over a decade.

Her face, infatti, is rather lovely, with more than a hint of the young Iris Murdoch about it. To a cartoonist’s eye, tuttavia, she’s obviously the MGM cartoon dog Droopy’s long-lost twin sister. So her defining feature for me has always been the dolorous countenance of her face in repose. This, in turn, has informed the role she’s played in the satirical narrative I found myself creating around her. Small, hunched and apparently unobtrusive; often passively observing some other idiocy nearby; when active, appearing to act more in sorrow than anger.

Even when she was helping immiserate the lives of millions of southern Europeans, particularly in Greece, in the Euro crises from 2011-15, I drew her as morose rather than gleefully malevolent. Whether that reveals the inner truth doesn’t really matter: cartoons are journalism and therefore tend to be the first response to the immediate appearance of things.

But I reckon this portrayal does capture a hint of what, for want of a better term, we may call Merkel’s soul. As she endured in office, I caught a definite whiff of long-suffering discomfort coming off her as she stood uneasily next to cavalcades of clowns and crooks at international summits, or in any meeting with any representative of the British government over the past 11 anni. She tried her not-very-good best to disguise the general air of toe-curling embarrassment choking the atmosphere in the room, all of which was etched so eloquently on her expressionless face. Thus, albeit unconsciously, Angela Merkel smiled insincerely and squirmed inside for us all, and for that alone we should salute her.

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