Cartoons That Draw You In
Friday, November 10, 2006
It takes time to collect 36,000 of anything. It also takes time to organize such a large number of artifacts, especially if you're going to pick out only 100 for display.
Such was the situation the Library of Congress found itself in a few years ago, when it came into possession of cartoon connoisseur J. Arthur Wood Jr.'s collection of popular graphic art, 60 years in the making and now taking a well-deserved bow in the spotlight as "Cartoon America: Highlights From the Art Wood Collection of Cartoon and Caricature" at the library's Jefferson Building. Described as a "pioneer in cartoon appreciation" by cartoonist and cartoon scholar Brian Walker (who, along with such luminaries as Jules Feiffer and Ann Telnaes, spoke at the exhibition's press preview), Wood at one point had hoped to establish a permanent museum or gallery to preserve and display his collection, but the short-lived National Gallery of Caricature and Cartoon Art in downtown Washington folded in 1997 for lack of money. In the Library of Congress, his dream could hardly have found a better expression.
Tightly yet smartly organized by curators Sara W. Duke and Martha H. Kennedy, this cream-of-the-crop-style survey showcases a collection that is not just vast but deep, featuring a 1743 etching, "Characters & Caricaturas," by satirical printmaker William Hogarth along with examples of original work by Bill Griffith ("Zippy the Pinhead") and Lynn Johnston ("For Better or for Worse"), two contemporary masters of the daily comic strip. Sure, the often surreal "Zippy" may be an acquired taste, but Johnston has been feted with a slew of honors for her slice-of-life humor, including the 1986 Reuben Award (she was the first woman to get the prize, named for cartoonist Rube Goldberg) and the 2001 Comic of the Year award from Editor and Publisher magazine.
As for the fact that Hogarth was British and that Johnston is Canadian, that's merely a clue that the show's title isn't meant to be taken too literally (for the most part, the work on display is as American as Charles Schulz's Charlie Brown). And it's not just cartoon and caricature either, including examples of illustration art by George Cruikshank, Katharine Pyle, James Montgomery Flagg and others, along with examples of work by Walt Disney, Winsor McCay and other pioneering animators.
The show is not without bite, including, as it does, political cartoons by such artists as Thomas Nast and Patrick Oliphant (and several examples by Wood himself). Still, its heart is in its humor. Single-panel gag cartoons -- such as James Thurber's 1932 minimalist/absurdist New Yorker magazine classic depicting a wife grudgingly admitting to her sullen husband, "All right, have it your way -- you heard a seal bark!" -- and strips from such artists as Frederick Opper ("Happy Hooligan") and Cathy Guisewite ("Cathy") form the show's sweet, candy-nougat center.
There is, as the library's director of collections and services, Jeremy Adamson, put it, a welcome "lightness" here despite the sometimes heavy themes -- war, corruption, etc. -- addressed by the editorial cartoons on view. Yet even at its most somber, this is work that for the most part brings a smile. In the words of curator and writer Harry Katz, who edited the show's companion volume, "Cartoon America: Comic Art in the Library of Congress," the show supplies a "visual laugh track" to the "trials and tribulations" of American history.
CARTOON AMERICA: HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE ART WOOD COLLECTION OF CARTOON AND CARICATURE Through Jan. 27 at the Library of Congress, Jefferson Building, 10 First St. SE (Metro: Capital South). 202-707-4604. http:/