When I was asked to blog about my Herblock show, “Herblock’s Presidents: ‘Puncturing Pomposity.’” at NPG, I wondered what I could say about an exhibition on America’s greatest political cartoonist. The cartoon is a visual medium. How do you convey its meaning in words? It’s sort of like being a music critic; it really works only after you have heard the music. So, I suggest you first visit the exhibition's website, and then come back to the blog.
Herbert Block (the contraction “Herblock” was devised by his father) had the longest duration of any political cartoonist in American history (maybe, world history, but I never checked that out): from 1929, when he got his first full-time job working for the Chicago Daily News, until his death in 2001. He worked for the Washington Post from 1946 until his death, and there he became the most influential political cartoonist in America, as well a major factor in making the Post a nationally important newspaper. As a reward for his contributions to the Post, Block was given complete editorial independence, rare for a political cartoonist. He won three Pulitzer Prizes and shared a fourth with the Post for its coverage of the Watergate crisis.
Focusing on Herblock’s cartoons of American presidents, the exhibition complements NPG’s permanent exhibition “America’s Presidents.” Herblock made cartoons of presidents from Herbert Hoover to George H. W. Bush. “Herblock’s Presidents,” however, covers just those from Franklin Roosevelt through Bill Clinton. Herblock made few cartoons of Hoover, and those that he did were not particularly incisive; he also made very few of George W. Bush.
Also, we decided to select only negative cartoons for the exhibition: in Block’s own terms, it was the negative cartoons that “punctured pomposity” and had the most constructive effects. In one of his twelve published books, Block told the story of a schoolteacher giving a lesson on kindness to animals and asking her pupils to give examples of such kindness. One little boy told of finding a stray kitten and adopting it. A little girl found a bird with a broken wing and nursed it back to health. Then a little boy raised his hand and said he had encountered a bully kicking a dog. He went over and beat up the bully, making sure he would not kick another dog. This, for Block, was the ultimate function of a cartoon: to take on the big bully. With the presidents, he does just that.
We looked at more than 14,000 of Herblock’s cartoons and picked 40 for the exhibition and Web site. In addition, the actual exhibition at the NPG contains 128 additional images in digital format—all dealing with the presidents. I think you’ll like this exhibition if the American presidency interests you, and if you like to see a master cartoonist at work.
- Sid Hart