The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Undersung women illustrators get their due at Library of Congress exhibition

It is possible, in this era of increasing recognition of women artists, to gaze at the recent prize-laced success of Alison Bechdel and Roz Chast and Raina Telgemeier and Lynda Barry, to name just a few, and consider that the field of illustration is becoming more level along gender lines. But then you consider that only two women have ever won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning, or that The Washington Post runs only two comic strips created by women — and none by a woman of color — and you remember how much further the cause of women artists getting fair representation has yet to travel.

That is a central thread running through "Drawn to Purpose: American Women Illustrators and Cartoonists," the rotating exhibit of nearly 70 works now up at the Library of Congress's Swann Gallery from its Prints and Photographs Division.

"This show has been years in the making," says its curator, Martha H. Kennedy, noting that her vision for "Drawn to Purpose" long preceded 2017's shifting zeitgeist amid the #Resist and #MeToo movements.

"When I started [here] as a curator and as I got to know the collections, I realized that a lot of women have been overlooked and underrecognized and underappreciated," says Kennedy, who authored the companion book of the same title that, through University Press of Mississippi, will publish in the spring.

Kennedy's aim, though, isn't merely to showcase undersung American artists since the Civil War, or to celebrate this century's more acclaimed women creators. The exhibit thoughtfully traces the shifts in the thematic content, particularly as more work moved beyond the domestic sphere, and as common social roles evolved with the times.

One of the show's earliest works is "A Pretty Girl in the West," an 1889 graphic-and-wash illustration by Mary Hallock Foote, who herself moved away from a growing art career in the East when she headed westward with her mining-engineer husband and created under more rugged conditions. The artwork's rural scene is rendered in mostly soft, meditative tones, yet there is a tension not only in the young woman's hammock, but also between her and the male onlooker seated feet away. Perhaps the woman is playing a role as much as she is playing the guitar, exercising a quiet power even in these new surroundings.

That scene provides an intriguing counterpoint to "Tugged," an Anita Kunz watercolor and gouache over graphite illustration created for Working Woman more than a century later. In portrait, a woman is trying to maintain a calm facade, yet her eyes can't disguise the stressors of a demanding life, as five symbolic little creatures — including screens, a briefcase and a cellphone — yank at her tousled hair in a psychic tug of war. The image offers a beautifully stoic grace within a beleaguered state, as if Kunz's woman were a multi­tasking Mona Lisa. You might smile at her plight only because it rings so true.

The show flows fluidly through American illustration's pre-World War II "golden age" with an overlap of the early comics era, here notably represented by Grace Drayton's rouge-cheeked Campbell Kids (they debuted in streetcar ads in 1904) and Rose O'Neill's cherub-cheeked Kewpies (they debuted in Ladies' Home Journal in 1909, four years before she patented the Kewpie Doll).

As enduring as those iconic creations are, they also embody in their wee rotund features the art of professional limitation: Women commercial artists were steered toward drawing kids, critters and objects that were cute, innocent and sometimes harmlessly fantastical. It was not till 1940 that Dale Messick would achieve a milestone by launching her syndicated strip "Brenda Starr, Reporter," depicting a strong working woman on the eve of so many American women joining the workforce as part of the war effort.

One section of the show, titled "New Narratives, New Voices," spotlights some of the gifted women who followed the comics path led by Messick and peer Jackie Ormes. These contemporary works will register as the most familiar to the modern viewer, including strips from Lynn Johnston's "For Better or For Worse," Hilary Price's "Rhymes With Orange" and Lynda Barry's autobiographical "One! Hundred! Demons!" Part of the brilliance of such creators is their ability to mine sharp humor from deeply textured characters and delightfully absurd situations.

In this same section, the viewer would do well to linger over Alison Bechdel's "Dykes to Watch Out For!" The 1993 strip "Through a Glass, Hardly" weaves the narrative centering on a hate crime (a brick is thrown at a bookstore display copy of "I Was a Lesbian Marine") with a layered range of responses that feel truthful to each character. It is this gifted storytelling that would presage Bechdel's autobiographical epic "Fun Home."

Other notable comics worth dwelling over range from Marge Henderson Buell's playful "Little Lulu," which debuted in 1935 in the Saturday Evening Post, to the sociopolitical "Where I'm Coming From" strip by Barbara Brandon-Croft, who in 1991 became the first nationally syndicated black female cartoonist.

Among editorial illustrators, Bernarda Bryson Shahn's striking 1930s lithograph "Arkansas Sharecropper and Wife" reads like a bleaker companion piece to Grant Wood's similarly composed "American Gothic." And from there, it is a natural segue to such political cartoonists represented as the Pulitzer Prize-winning Signe Wilkinson, drawing in 1988 about pay inequity, and the Herblock Prize-winning Jen Sorensen, who in 2011 was providing wry judgment about how online content is devalued in the artistic marketplace. (This show also reminds how the late Texas cartoonist Etta Hulme remains too easily overlooked, despite her rare perch in the '70s.)

Elsewhere, the changing styles of magazine illustration come to the fore with such beautifully composed covers as Anne Harriet Fish's 1920 art for Vanity Fair, as social interplay between men and women is pictured through alluring dance, and Kunz's haunting 1992 illustration for Ms. Magazine, "Child Abuse."

The exhibit also rightly features one of the most popular true originals in American cartooning. Roz Chast's 2008 New Yorker comic "Mixed Marriage: Takes Two to Tango" is a fitting representation of her comic pacing that builds to its own sublime anxiety, and her kinetic lines sing the body frenetic.

"Drawn to Purpose" is a smartly curated show that rewards seeking out the social context for all the enduring content. The show also whets the appetite for a fuller feast, so here's hoping that such exhibits attract more worthy comic art by women to the library's collections — perhaps from the next generation of talent that includes Kate Beaton, Jillian Tamaki, Lisa Hanawalt, Fiona Staples and Nilah Magruder.

Just across the street, in the U.S. Capitol, are the seats of power where, nearly one year ago, a sitting woman senator was shushed into silence.

Amid so much necessary change, it is illuminating to stroll from Capitol Hill over to the library's Jefferson Building, and view up close how women have rendered judgment on the past century of social evolution. Because lasting art still speaks volumes.

If you go

Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Building, Graphic Arts Galleries.

Dates: Through Oct. 20.

Admission: Free.