Herb Block and Picasso?: One Cartoonist Connects with the Fine Art World

The following is a guest post by Martha H. Kennedy, Curator of Popular and Applied Graphic Arts, Prints and Photographs Division.

Herb Block (aka Herblock) (1909-2001), legendary cartoonist for the Washington Post and four-time Pulitzer Prize winner, probably never met Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), but he did admire this artist and his art. He also admired, learned from, and drew upon work by other fine artists. How do we know? To explore this interesting aspect of Herblock’s work, let’s first ask what could the focused, forthright cartoonist possibly have in common with a global star of fine art who pioneered the early abstract style of Cubism?

Consider the tribute that he drew just days after Picasso’s death on April 8, 1973.

Cartoon drawing showing an art student with a globe for a head, holding a palette and brush, as the figure of a man, Picasso, steps out of the frame.

“No more lessons, Pablo?” Drawing by Herbert Block (Herblock), 1973. Reproduced by permission. //www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/hlb/item/2012638905/.

Herblock here acknowledges Picasso’s larger-than-life impact on the art world by showing him as a partly visible giant exiting stage right. While worlds apart in the venues where each practiced and presented his art, the two were kindred spirits. Each famously and fiercely condemned the destruction and suffering wrought by war—Picasso in his masterpiece Guernica, and Herblock in scores of anti-war cartoons. This connection between the two men supports the basic premise that artists of all stripes have special powers to reflect the urgent concerns of society.

Visitors viewing Herblock's solo exhibition of cartoon drawings at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Visitors viewing Herblock’s solo exhibition of cartoon drawings at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Photo by Ellis, 1951. //www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/hlb/item/2009632902/

Revisiting what we know about Herblock’s art education, his interactions with the Washington, D.C. art community, and his comments about art and artists all attest to an abiding interest in fine art. His autobiography informs us that he took drawing classes at the Art Institute of Chicago where he won a scholarship at age 12, won prizes in drawing contests held by the Hearst newspapers, and took classes in art, art history and journalism in high school. The same source and assistants at the Washington Post indicate that he loved fine art, knew luminaries in the city’s fine art community, and had a solo exhibition of about 200 drawings at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1950.

Interestingly, Herblock reveals a sense of connection with fine art that sometimes played into his creative process, as seen when he referenced or deliberately parodied such artwork in his cartoons. Two examples that predate his commemoration of Picasso convey skeptical perspectives on non-representational art as a means of commenting on then-current affairs. He visually references modernist painting or sculpture as metaphors for unsettling conditions of disorder.

Cartoon showing man running by works of art on a wall that depict, e.g., "The Economic Situation"

Exhibition of modern art. Drawing by Herbert Block (Herblock), 1940 Feb. Reproduced by permission. //www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/hlb/item/2010636039/

Cartoon likening the 1966 election to a modernist sculpture, which he fashioned from an assemblage of disparate, outdated auto parts.

“You wanted something modern, didn’t you?” Drawing by Herbert Block (Herblock), 1966 Oct. Reproduced by permission. //www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/hlb/item/2006683294/

In the first, Exhibition of Modern Art, we see John Q. Citizen, an Everyman figure, moving nervously through an exhibition of large semi-abstract paintings filled with disorganized arrays of symbols and numbers. His Everyman’s discomfort reflects general concern and anxiety over economic, political, and diplomatic instability in the world, possibly a sense of crisis produced by World War II. In the second, “You wanted something modern, didn’t you?,” Herblock pokes fun at the 1966 election reform bill by depicting it as a modernist sculpture, an assemblage of outdated, unrelated auto parts representing “Outmoded Campaign Spending Laws.” Congress passed the Campaign Contribution Law in October of 1966 that aimed to provide direct subsidy for presidential elections. Herblock criticizes the law as a hodgepodge of old and new measures that were ineffective as reform.

In other cartoons, Herblock refers to or parodies iconic works from the Renaissance. In compositions that simplify but also strongly recall figures and settings of the original sources, he also alters or transforms the scenarios to respond to the issues and concerns of his day.

In The Storm, he clearly alludes to Renaissance portrayals of Adam and Eve being expelled from Eden. Instead of original sin forcing their departure, however, he identifies the damaging effects of acid rain produced by human activity as the negative force that threatens the environments of New England and Canada. His cartoon reinforces an editorial that urges President Ronald Reagan to pursue a treaty with steps to curb pollution.

Cartoon showing a man labeled "New England" and a woman labeled "Canada" running for cover during a rainstorm.

The storm. Drawing by Herbert Block (Herblock), 1987 April. Reproduced by permission. //www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/hlb/item/2012641973/

In The Other Big Four, Herblock references the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse of 1511 by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). In Dürer’s terrifying image that forecasts the end of the world, the four horses and riders are identified from left to right as Death, Famine, War, and Plague (or Pestilence). Herblock radically simplifies the composition and slightly alters the positions and identities of his riders, showing from left to right, Famine, Pestilence, Death, and War. Herblock drew this cartoon when the four major post-World War II powers (the United States, USSR, England, and France) planned a Big Four Conference to make peace treaties with countries that had opposed Germany. He likened what was at stake at this conference to the kinds of cosmic threats embodied by the infamous four horsemen, symbols of forces that threaten world peace and survival.

Cartoon showing figures on horseback labeled riders, showing from left to right, Famine, Pestilence, Death, and War.

The other Big Four. Drawing by Herbert Block (Herblock), 1946 May. Reproduced by permission. //www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/hlb/item/2012634003/

Herblock drew inspiration from American masterpieces as well as seen in two cartoons that cleverly parody Grant Wood’s painting, American Gothic (1930), an image often shown to celebrate the nation’s  hard-working farmers. In the earlier cartoon, Herblock laments their sad situation. The couple’s dismayed expressions, the title forecasting foreclosure, and the large campaign button symbolic of misplaced support all underscore the betrayal of farmers’ hopes during President Reagan’s second term. A few years later, Herblock depicts the same couple in the same clothes and unmistakable backdrop to convey quite a different message. They smile ever so slightly, possibly and probably at the results of the Iowa caucus when President Reagan’s Vice President George H. W. Bush came in a disappointing third.

Cartoon showing a parody of Grand Wood's painting American Gothic; the dismayed farmer and his wife stand in front of their farmhouse with the wife holding documents labeled "farm foreclosures" and the husband wearing a campaign button with a picture of Ronald Reagan saying "4 more years."

“I don’t think we’re gonna make it another four.” Drawing by Herbert Block (Herblock), 1985 Jan. Reproduced by permission. //www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2009632482/

Cartoon parodying Grant Wood's painting American Gothic with Couple holding newspaper with headline, "Bush Runs Third."

“Well, I think we kicked a little something.” Drawing by Herbert Block (Herblock), 1988 Feb. Reproduced by permission. //www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/hlb/item/2012642170/

Like many of his peers, Herblock enjoyed lifelong connections with the world of fine art. Selectively and memorably, he referenced famous artists, iconic works and types of fine art in his cartoons as a compelling way of conveying informed commentary. These few examples give us a glimpse into one facet of his creative process—one of many that spurred him to improvise, innovate and explore varied ways of making his cartoons effective.

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2 Comments

  1. Delnana
    December 23, 2020 at 3:22 pm

    That was an excellent piece. Thank you so much.

  2. KG7XD
    January 10, 2021 at 7:35 pm

    Way back in the first decade of the 2000s I enjoyed seeing the Herblock exhibition at the Corcoran in DC, just ’round the corner from the White House. This was so enjoyable to see. So sad that America has fallen on political dis-repair from all angles. Herblock would have had a field day with events of our times…if he wasn’t ‘canceled’ from both sides of the political spectrum. RIP Herblock – hope to see your work has continued on other spheres.

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