With its colorful candidates and instant-classic sound bites, this election year has been a boon for satirists and political cartoonists. However, the Charleston Library Society’s latest exhibit proves that this year — or century, for that matter — isn’t all that unique.
From the finely etched morality art of the 1700s to satirical The New Yorker cartoons of today, the exhibit presents a veritable evolutionary chart of the art form. But looking at the illustrations on display at Toonin’ In: The Culture of Cartoons from Hogarth to The New Yorker, it’s clear that when it comes to satire and editorial cartoons, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
The earliest pieces include two mammoth, “lift-with-your-legs”-heavy tomes — both from the Library Society vault — archiving the works of William Hogarth and James Gillray, two London artists recognized for their early influence on political cartoons. The catalogue of Hogarth’s works, originally purchased from his widow in 1784 and gifted to the Library Society by Henry Winthrop in 1874, collects his ornately crosshatched plates targeting the ethics of 18th century society in England. The sequential nature of his multi-plate series — A Harlot’s Progress, A Rake’s Progress, and Marriage-à-la-mode — tracks the arc and demise of the unethical with a dark sense of humor. They are the direct antecedents of the comic strips and graphic novels of today. Given the age and condition of the volume, the sizable hardbound edition will appear under glass, with Midnight Modern Conversation, a sharp commentary on the stages of drunken behavior, being featured.
While Hogarth’s work features classical portraiture and realism, Gillray’s illustrations include the caricatures, word balloons, and pun-friendly wordplay indicative of modern-day editorial cartoons. Indeed, Gillray — known for his absurd political and social grotesques and nose-thumbing at the greed and bumblings of 19th century politicians — is often referred to as “the father of the political cartoon.” Like Hogarth’s catalogue, 1851’s The Works of James Gillray will appear under glass with a sample of his cartoons on display. While donkeys appear in today’s cartoons as shorthand for the Democratic party, Gillray’s symbolic use of them as the more literal ass is evident in these illustrations; for example, King George III appears as a slumbering donkey to Guy Fawke’s fox in Guy Vaux, and asinine, gambling-averse Westminster justices destroy an even/odd table in The W______st_r Just-Asses a Braying.
In addition to the works of Hogarth and Gillray, the exhibit includes a sampling of books from the Library Society collection that represent cartoons and caricatures from the 1800s to the early 1900s. One display features the artwork and puppet namesake of Punch, the long-running British magazine and spiritual predecessor to Mad, that helped popularize the use of the term “cartoon” for humorous illustrations. Another display includes John Leech’s illustrations for Gilbert Abbott à Beckett’s A Comic History of Rome and A Comic History of England, Thomas Wright’s History of Caricature and Grotesque: In Literature and Art, and omnibuses collecting the work of British political caricaturist George Cruikshank. The exhibit would include even more from the CLS vault, including books collecting WWII- and Cold War-era cartoons, the society simply ran out of room, says the Library Society’s Debbie Fenn.
Giving the show a more modern and stateside representation is a series of cartoons from The New Yorker, on loan from the vast collection of Melvin Seiden and courtesy of New York City’s Morgan Library. While the likes of Hogarth and Cruikshank render finely-detailed etchings and illustrations, these featured cartoonists — including George Booth, J.B. Handelsman, and James Thurber — prove satire can be done with simple line work and doodles. Providing the now to Hogarth’s then, Matthew Diffee showcases original artwork from his contributions to Texas Monthly and The New Yorker, where he has enjoyed the rare position as an under-contract cartoonist for the past 16 years.
Influenced by the deadpan comedy of Steven Wright and Monty Python’s “absurdity with a straight face,” Diffee’s single-panel cartoons marry succinct dialogue and ironic imagery to satirize aspects of modern life, from funerals and dining out to fitness buffs and Irish setters. When sitting down to draft ideas for his weekly submission to The New Yorker — he generally comes up with around 10 different ideas that may or may not see print — Diffee looks for what he refers to as “the puzzle joke.” “It’s about making the reader think,” he says. “About creating a eureka moment.”
From the crosshatching of Hogarth to the simplistic line work of The New Yorker, the intent of the artists remains the same throughout the ages. Using ironic dichotomy and smart humor, the cartoonists and illustrators featured in Toonin’ In make observers pause and consider the actions of high-ranking politicians and everyday citizens alike. Regardless of whether it’s social commentary from 18th century or the 21st, it’s about, as Diffee puts it, “being serious about the silly” — or vice versa, given the war and political upheaval charted through the editorial cartoons on display.
New Yorker cartoonist Matthew Diffee will speak at the Library Society on June 2 in support of the exhibit and his new book, Hand-Drawn Jokes for Smart Attractive People.