Cartoonists Armed with Pointed Pens

In the U.S., editorial cartoonists come in all stripes of the multi-hued American political spectrum. So, it’s not surprising that the points of view expressed in their visual commentary are as varied as their cartooning styles. A recently-opened Library of Congress exhibition, Pointing Their Pens: Herblock and Fellow Cartoonists Confront the Issues, as described in its Overview “offers viewers an extensive opportunity to compare the work of Herbert L. Block (1909-2001)–commonly known as Herblock–alongside the work of his contemporaries over the period of four decades” of the twentieth century. The exhibition is viewed through the lens of five key historical events:  the question of U.S. intervention prior to entering World War II, the Red Scare, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, and events in the Middle East. Editorial cartoonists’ responses to these issues were as pointed as the nibs of the drawing pens used to express themselves.

Two Cartoons from the “Red Scare” Section

Jerry Costello (1897-1971). How We Tag a Viper [detail], 1953. Published in the Albany Knickerbocker News, September 3, 1953. India ink, graphite, and opaque white drawing. Gift of Jerry Costello, 1953. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
LC-DIG-acd-2a07674 © Times Union, Albany, NY

In 1954, as the Army-McCarthy hearings exposed the Wisconsin senator's bullying tactics on national television, Joseph McCarthy's reputation plummeted. Estonian émigré, Edmund Valtman, who had lived through German fascism and Soviet communism, believed the Republican Party needed to purge the red scare obsession from its agenda. Already an established cartoonist, Valtman emigrated to the United States in 1949 and worked for the Hartford Times between 1951 and his retirement in 1975.

Edmund Valtman (1914-2005). Getting It Out of His System [detail], 1954. Published in the Hartford Times, March 11, 1954. India ink and opaque white drawing. Art Wood Collection of Cartoon and Caricature, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Pointing Their Pens is on display now through mid-March 2016 in the Graphic Arts Galleries in the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building. In parallel, the online exhibition is open henceforth and will persist into the imperceptible digital future. The exhibition draws from the comprehensive collections of cartoon art acquired by the Library of Congress since the early 1900s, which include generous donations by cartoonists and their heirs. Selections from the Herbert L. Block Collection of more than 14,000 drawings, donated to the Library by the Herb Block Foundation in 2002, serve as the mainstay of Pointing Their Pens.

Two Cartoons from the “Nixon” Section

A month after the Senate began its televised Watergate hearings, revelations regarding the extent of the cover-ups astounded Americans. Herblock found in the layers of rugs in the White House Oval Office a perfect metaphor. At the time he published this cartoon, several participants in the scandal had admitted to the investigating committee that they had been asked to commit perjury.

Herblock (1909-2001). Floor-to-Ceiling Carpeting [detail], 1973. Published in the Washington Post, June 12, 1973. India ink, graphite, and opaque white drawing. Herbert L. Block Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
LC-DIG-hlb-08241 © Herb Block Foundation

Nixon-supporter Gib Crockett of the Washington Star offered a backyard scene to send a message to his readers to relax and take it easy. Watergate is half-forgotten in the unmowed yard. Despite the Senate investigation into the Watergate scandal that had the country glued to the television, his John Q. Public is unmoved and unwavering in support of President Nixon.

Gib Crockett (1912-2000). The Livin’s Still Easy [detail], 1973. Published in the Washington Star, June 1, 1973. India ink and crayon drawing. Art Wood Collection of Cartoon and Caricature, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
LC-DIG-ppmsca-38563 © Estate of Gib Crockett

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Masterful Research

The following is a guest post by art historian Diane De Grazia, retired chief curator at the Cleveland Museum of Art and author of such publications as Master Drawings from the Cleveland Museum of Art (2000). An accomplished scholar, Dr. De Grazia served previously as deputy director for the Indianapolis Museum of Art and a […]