In summer 2010, Tate Britain will collaborate with a host of comic talent to present a ground-breaking exhibition on the role of humour in British visual culture. Through a great diversity of art forms – including painting, drawing, sculpture, film and photography – comedy, the comic, and visual humour will be explored in their many dimensions. The exhibition will be presented and interpreted by some of the country’s best-known cartoonists and comedy writers. Their expertise and opinion will not only offer visitors a fresh take on comic traditions from the 1600s to the present day, but also encourage debate around the wider role of humour in British life.

British Comic Art will focus on a group of key topics, each of which will be curated in collaboration with a relevant figure from the comedy world. In this way, the exhibition will show the wide variety of ways in which Britain’s thriving tradition of comic art has taken shape, and the links between comic practices of the past and present. Donald McGill’s saucy seaside postcards will be shown alongside works by Aubrey Beardsley and Sarah Lucas, in a section devoted to all things bawdy. Meanwhile, Britain’s love of the absurd and the visionary will be represented by such diverse material as Edward Lear’s illustrations and David Shrigley’s sculpture. Politics, social commentary and morality will each be explored too, from Hogarth’s satires of Georgian society to Gerald Scarfe’s caricatures of the Thatcher government.

Celebrating the rich history of comical images and visual jokes, and encompassing an array of different styles, media and techniques, the exhibition will also ask some challenging questions about humour in the visual arts. Is satire truly effective as a means of political messaging? What role have cartoons played in spreading and reinforcing prejudice? Are some things in life truly beyond a joke? British Comic Art will explore these and other such complex issues, reflecting the way that changing social attitudes and identity politics have always played an important role in both comedy and art history.

Drawing on material far beyond the traditional realm of graphic satire, the exhibition will also bring together sculptures, installations and performances. Works by contemporary artists such as Rebecca Warren and Angus Fairhurst will be contrasted with key historical pieces by Gillray and Cruikshank. Radio, film and new media will also play a part in the show, reflecting how technological developments have consistently reinvigorated the genre, and how artists have used different vehicles to transmit their ideas and engage their audience.

British Comic Art will be curated by Martin Myrone, Curator of 18th & 19th Century British Art, Tate Britain; Cedar Lewisohn, Programmer for Tate Media; and Tim Batchelor, Assistant Curator, Tate Britain. A group of guest curators will work with them on the selection, presentation and interpretation of the exhibition. British Comic Art will also be accompanied by an illustrated book produced by Tate Publishing.