Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Herblock! exhibit review

Another one for the International J of Comic Art that you're getting to see first...

Herblock! Sara Duke, Martha Kennedy and Cynthia Wayne. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, October 13, 2009-May 1, 2010.

By the terms of Herbert “Herblock” Block’s will, the Library of Congress must mount an exhibit of his work every three years. In spite of Block’s staggering 72-year long professional career and four Pulitzer Prizes, this reviewer begins to feel a bit jaded. Fortunately, this is an excellent exhibition that is well worth seeing and is accompanied by an excellent companion book, Herblock by Haynes Johnson and Harry Katz (New York, Norton, 2009) that also has a cd of 18,000 of Block’s cartoons (produced by Warren Bernard). The occasion for the large scale of these events was Herblock’s 100th birthday.

The exhibit is in a new gallery, created recently from a reading room, and to get to it, one has to walk through a recreation of Thomas Jefferson’s library – a highlight for any book lover. The curators (who are my friends) cleverly chose 82 original drawings that have not bee on display before. These are out of the 14,460 cartoons and 250,000 roughs he left to the library. They also added the twelve books of his cartoons that Block published in his lifetime. These copies, unlike the ones originally added to the Library, have their dustjackets because they are a recent donation to the Prints and Photographs division from the Herb Block Foundation.

The exhibit opens with a prĂ©cis of who Block was and includes some of his iconic images such as the footsteps leading from the Watergate break-in to Nixon’s White House. “The Approaching Perils” covers his early years. One can see Block’s early typical Midwestern cartoonist style using pen and ink – a style that is unrecognizable to us as Herblock. This style soon gives way to his familiar use of heavy crayon or graphite lines. Some notable works were “Winged Victory” (1938) in which he quoted the sculpture from Samothrace, and “What ‘Peace Now’ Would Mean” (1940) in which he showed Hitler armed with a machine gun and sitting on the globe.

Other sections were “Psychopathic Ward” on the Depression, fascism and World War II, “White is Black, Black is White, Night is Day—“ on the Cold War, “Naughty, Naughty” on McCarthyism, “Everything’s [Not] Okay” on the 1960s, “Here He Comes Now” on Richard Nixon, “It Gets Into Everything” on the 1970s and terrorism, “Joy to the World” on Ronald Reagan, “Closing Years, Contrasting Styles of Leadership” on Clinton and the elder George Bush, and “Classic Cartoons by a Master” to catch anything that might have been missed.

One could easily select favorite drawings from each section – my notebook is full of notations such as “Man’s Reach” (1968) in which he drew, apropos of Apollo 8, a white hand with its finger and thumb meeting to encircle the moon on top of a black layer covering most of the paper. By the end of his life, and thus the end of the exhibit, Block’s ability was slipping somewhat and the images are covered with Avery labels and ink redrawings. “Creationism or Evolution – That’s Up to the States” has Bush’s head reworked and pasted on, but the final image in print would have looked fine.

During the press tour Harry Katz noted that in the future “you’re not going to see cartoons on the wall – newspapers are changing” and “With Herblock missing, we need to get the voice of the cartoonist out there and revitalizing the art form” – two sentiments that most readers of IJOCA (and this blog!) can agree with and hope for the best.

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