New Library of Congress Exhibition: “Art in Action: Herblock and Fellow Artists Respond to Their Times”

The following is a guest post by exhibition co-curators Katherine Blood, Curator of Fine Prints, and Martha H. Kennedy, Curator of Popular & Applied Graphic Art, Prints & Photographs Division.

A new Library of Congress exhibition, “Art in Action: Herblock and Fellow Artists Respond to Their Times,” features selections from the Library’s signature collection of original drawings by renowned editorial cartoonist Herbert Block (known as Herblock; 1909-2001) alongside political prints, posters, and drawings in which other artists comment on the defining sociopolitical issues of their times. In addition to the display in the Library’s Jefferson Building Graphic Arts Galleries, an online version is available. Key topics that drew Herblock’s attention provide the organizing framework for the exhibition and include civil rights, gender and women’s rights, health, environment, the impact of war, refugees, education, and the role of media. The show features 39 items, including 12 drawings by Herblock and works by 25 other artists, all from the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division.

Herb Block. <em>No more lessons, Pablo?</em>, 4-10-1973. Drawing published in The Washington Post, April 10, 1973. © Herb Block Foundation. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hlb.08198

Herb Block. No more lessons, Pablo?, 4-10-1973. Drawing published in The Washington Post, April 10, 1973. © Herb Block Foundation. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hlb.08198

The exhibition reaches back across the centuries to situate Herblock’s work within the art historical context of social commentary by great masters of the past, including Jacques Callot (1592-1635), Francisco de Goya (1746-1828), Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945), and Leopoldo Méndez (1902-1969). Herblock’s journalistic art work is paired with works by modern and contemporary artists, including Eric Avery, Sandow Birk, Alexander Calder, Enrique Chagoya, Shepard Fairey, Juan Fuentes, Kerry James Marshall, John Isaiah Pepion, Favianna Rodriguez, Helen Zughaib, and others.

Herblock trained at the Art Institute of Chicago where he developed his drawing skills and studied art history, which he effectively channeled in his cartoons. For example, days after the death of Pablo Picasso, well-known for his epic anti-war painting Guernica, Herblock acknowledged the elder artist’s larger-than-life impact on the art world in his drawing No more lessons, Pablo? (right)

Giving a different perspective on the impact of war, Enrique Chagoya explores the idea that history is told by winners of wars even as he questions and counters received wisdom. His codex book Return of the Macrobiotic Cannibal (below) weaves a time-warping narrative of cultures clashing in which Pre-Columbian mythological beings appear alongside American comic book characters.

Enrique Chagoya. El regreso del cannibal macrobiotico/Return of the Macrobiotic Cannibal, 1998 print. © Enrique Chagoya, used by permission. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.55806

Enrique Chagoya. El regreso del cannibal macrobiotico/Return of the Macrobiotic Cannibal, 1998 print. © Enrique Chagoya, used by permission. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.55806

Herblock’s drawing captioned simply Race (below left) is a riveting metaphor for the crisis in racial relations in America. By showing the figure of Progress pulling ahead of his angry-looking brother Violence, Herblock signals hope for continuing gains in civil rights for all during 1968, a year of turbulence unleashed by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

A generation later, Kerry James Marshall pays somber tribute to the champions and martyrs of the 1960s Civil Rights movement with his 1997 lithograph Memento (below right), which shows portraits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and John F. Kennedy on a mourning banner. Above, wearing gold wings, are Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, four young girls killed in the 1963 Birmingham Church bombing, Civil Rights workers, and Black Panther members. In the foreground, a woman carrying flowers stands with her body symbolically turned toward history and her face turned toward present and future viewers.

Herb Block. <em>Race</em>, 1968. Drawing published in the Washington Post, May, 28, 1968. © Herb Block Foundation. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.19989

Herb Block. Race, 1968. Drawing published in The Washington Post, May, 28, 1968. © Herb Block Foundation. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.19989

Kerry James Marshall. <em>Memento</em>, 1997 print. © Kerry James Marshall. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.15970

Kerry James Marshall. Memento, 1997 print. © Kerry James Marshall. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.15970

Issues of health and the environment also figure notably in the work of socially conscious artists including cartoonists. Herblock quit smoking when he was not allowed to have cigarettes while recovering from a heart attack in 1959. This experience and reports giving facts on the deadly hazard posed by smoking undoubtedly played into the creation of his chilling scene of the Grim Reaper offering a smoker a light in I’m still cutting down, too (below left) from 1965.

The danger of smoking also features in Sandow Birk’s darkly satirical etching Malignant Neoplasms (Cancer) (below right) from his series Ten Leading Causes of Death in America (2005). In this image, Birk shows a harried office worker who smokes while typing at a computer. Birk enhances the sense of health hazards in the surrounding sources of stress and a fast food meal. The title alludes to a sinister future for this anxious-looking figure.

Herb Block. <em>"I'm still cutting down, too,"</em> 1965. Drawing published in the Washington Post, 1/13/1965. © Herb Block Foundation. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hlb.06237

Herb Block. “I’m still cutting down, too,” 1965. Drawing published in The Washington Post, 1/13/1965. © Herb Block Foundation. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hlb.06237

Sandow Birk. <em>Malignant Neoplasms (Cancer)</em>, 2005 print. (Ten Leading Causes of Death in America series). Print. © Sandow Birk, Courtesy of the Artist and Koplin Del Rio Gallery, used by permission. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.55796

Sandow Birk. Malignant Neoplasms (Cancer), 2005 print. (Ten Leading Causes of Death in America series). Print. © Sandow Birk, Courtesy of the Artist and Koplin Del Rio Gallery, used by permission. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.55796

All of these artists have responded to urgent issues by creating imagery with powerful potential to move viewers to think, feel, and sometimes take action. Strikingly, Herblock and many of the artists in the exhibition have purposefully referenced historical and artistic precedents in their works, showing how the impulse to comment on such causes as social justice and human rights through art has a long history and continues to resonate today. The exhibited artworks highlight how prescient Herblock proved to be in pinpointing issues that fellow artists have also felt compelled to address. Collectively, they reflect the long arc of history engaged with issue-driven art and the wider condition of being human.

Art in Action: Herblock and Fellow Artists Respond to Their Times” is part of a Library of Congress yearlong initiative in 2019 to invite visitors to Explore America’s Changemakers. The year will include a variety of events and two forthcoming exhibitions featuring the Library’s collections related to important figures in women’s history and the fight for suffrage and Rosa Parks’ groundbreaking role in the civil rights movement.

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