Fantastical maps of the world !

Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope, and that enables you to laugh at life’s realities”

– Dr. Seuss

As early as 1877, artist Frederick W. Rose set a trend for satire and propaganda in cartography with his ‘Octopus Map’.

Serio-Comic War Map For The Year 1877. Cornell University – PJ Mode Collection of Persuasive Cartography.

The map, published during the Russian-Turkish war (1877-78), was a reflection of Rose’s pro-Turkish stance. In the map, Russia is the fearsome, ‘evil’ Octopus, spreading its tentacles, causing havoc all over Europe. Could the choice of using the octopus indicate Russia’s greed and ambition for territory? Possibly! It is also interesting to note, that Russia is the only country depicted as an animal. Take a look at this detail from the map.

You’d notice a religious Ireland (holding a cross-ornament) following Britain, with Home Rule on its mind. Does that remind you of Annie Besant and the Home Rule movement that inspired India? Britain itself is labelled with terms like “Suez” and “India” : a reference to the colonies and the recently constructed Suez Canal that had furthered Britain’s interest and profits from trade in India. This war was therefore important to the British : if Russia won over the Ottoman Empire and gained control over the Suez, Britain would stand to lose a precious lot.

Satirical maps were not uncommon in Europe. 200 years before Frederick Rose’s map, this creation by the German cartographer Johannes Putsch became popular for its depiction of Europe as a queen.

Map of Europe as a queen, printed by Sebastian Munster in Basel in 1570. Public Domain

Geographical fun : You might enjoy this atlas featuring twelve maps of European countries, each with a national stereotype based on the outline and shape of the country. Each map is accompanied by a short verse describing the authors’ creation.

The ‘serio-comic’ maps became a trend in the 20th century as excellent “explainers” of the political situation that was unravelling in the world.

This was a period of momentous change and also the most internationally turbulent : Two World Wars, the Russia-Japan war, a civil war in Russia – it was a time when the global landscape was marked by conflict. These maps were meant to influence public sentiment and contributed towards shaping stereotypes.

However, it wasn’t just the Europeans who were making maps. The Japanese had their own version!

The illustration of the Great European War (First World War) by Ryōzō Tanaka : A humorous atlas of the world

In the map, Japan emphasises its superiority by depicting itself as a Samurai – all other countries get an animal avatar. Africa, however, does not seem to have any bearing on Japan is “sewn up”.

It is a fun exercise to try and guess the significance of each animal and go deeper into Japan’s relationship with the world! Which animals (countries) are seen as aggressive?
Why do you think India has been depicted as an elephant?x

China looks back at its past (reminiscing the power of the Qing Dynasty) through a magnifying glass, while Russia sheds its Octopus avatar and eyes Europe as a powerful bear. The US is shown as a badger with a gun, observing the world from a distance. Interestingly, in another serio-comic War Map by Tanaka, the US holds a telescope – focusing on South East Asia – as well as binoculars to keep up on the European conflict.

Pictorial map of World War I in Russian

Pictorial maps continued to be popular throughout the second World War. However, as photography gained prominence, this genre slowly faded out. Here are some more to enjoy!

In the 21st century, we wish we’d get our update on international relations in a creative way, but this is all we have: 😅

Source: Reddit

This month, we are spotlighting satire and humour in art. Participate by sharing something quirky you found at a museum / gallery / library! You can make a MEME on our website with all the open access art or share your favourite piece of satire with us (poem, painting, cartoon etc.)

Humour or Humiliation?

If medieval Europe was using satirical maps to rebut enemies or make political statements, medieval Indian courts had artists make artworks such as this one!

Equestrian Portrait of a Nobleca. 1775 attributed to Bagta | The Met Museum [Public Domain]

In a piece about the painter Bagta (of Devgarh), art historian Vinit Vyas writes:

The stout man, with his curled moustache, long beard, reddish eyes, bemused face and awkward posture is seen riding a horse who is finding it difficult to handle the rider’s weight as he bends while running. Mocking a nobleman’s poundage and physical features through a painting, many of which were circulated in the court, might have served as humiliation or humour.

The Latest from Museums:

DAG Museums asked if art should always tell the truth.
What do you think?x

Accompanying the question was an engraving by F.C. Lewis (Sr.) featuring the ‘Dussorah Durbar of His Highness Maharaja of Mysore, 1848-1849’. The intent behind the artwork was to show the cordial relationship between the colonizer and the colonized. With this kind of whitewashing, how do we look at art in a decolonized manner?

We love this satirical take on the Delhi-Durbar of 1903 by the poet Akbar Allahabadi : while the artwork does not tell the truth, Allahabadi’s poetry does give us an important insight.

The State Entry into Delhi : Painting and Poetry at the Delhi Durbar of 1903.
This iconic painting titled ‘The State entry into Delhi’ from the collection of the Victoria Memorial Hall (Kolkata), shows a ceremonial procession held as part of the 1903 Delhi Durbar.…
The State Entry into Delhi : Painting and Poetry at the Delhi Durbar of 1903.
This iconic painting titled ‘The State entry into Delhi’ from the collection of the Victoria Memorial Hall (Kolkata), shows a ceremonial procession held as part of the 1903 Delhi Durbar.…

We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth, at least the truth that is given to us to understand.                            

Pablo Picasso


Attend a Meme-Making workshop with us on July 17 hosted by Museum of Art & Photography, Bangalore.

Attend a workshop series by Mehrangarh Museum : Art in the Everyday starts on 17 July.

Art +

Play: this quiz takes you through the paintings of Charles D’Oyly – a British public official who documented different monuments and sites during his voyage from Bengal to Bihar.

That’s all for this week 🙂 If you spotted something fascinating from a gallery, museum, archive or library, tell us about it! Whether it is a link, image, or story, we’d love to hear from you at [email protected]Thanks for reading!

Explore More In


Notify of

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
1 year ago

this is fascinating! thank you!

1 year ago

Brilliant work

1 year ago

Great collection, creativity has no boundaries proven by the mapped boundaries

Related Articles

Have something to say? Add a comment!x


You may republish this article online or in print under our Creative Commons license. You may not edit or shorten the text, you must attribute the article to The Heritage Lab and you must include the author’s name in your republication.

If you have any questions, please email [email protected]

Fantastical maps of the world !