there's a reason that old saw, "A picture's worth a thousand words," is still invoked as I do now. It is the essence of "Poison Pens: A Century of American Political Cartoons," a new exhibition at the Tampa Museum of Art.
Visual editorials are the most succinct form of commentary, and the best need few or no words to convey a message. They have been around for a long time. In 1754 Benjamin Franklin created his famous Join or Die to promote colonial unity using the image of a snake cut into sections representing different regions. In the 1790s, Francisco Goya's Caprichos lambasted Spanish society.
But the political cartoon as we know it began with the proliferation of daily newspapers and weekly journals in the 19th century, when advances in printing technology meant more timely publication, cheaper cost and much wider access.
The show begins with 1871 and 1875 cartoons criticizing the shady maneuvers of New York politician William "Boss" Tweed. They are the work of Thomas Nast, often called the father of the American political cartoon. He relentlessly documented Tweed's illegal dealings in Harper's Weekly with caricatures such as the two seen in this show. Nast's cartoons were in large part responsible for public outrage that led to Tweed's downfall.
Nast influenced generations of political illustrators in creating or popularizing images that became immediately recognizable and enduring symbols, including the Republican elephant and Democratic donkey. Still, the virtue of political cartoons is their timeliness and focus on current events. Content becomes dated quickly, and issues that generate high emotion in one era can be forgotten by another. Good, brief wall texts give the cartoons needed context.
The most recent ones are self-explanatory. Signe Wilkinson's I Am Occupied juxtaposes the Occupy Movement with a statement on overpopulation with the Earth's continents outlined by and filled with human heads. She's one of 15 Pulitzer Prize winners for editorial cartoon represented, deservedly since her work is especially eloquent and sophisticated.
Stylistically, the 59 cartoons here show an evolution from those highly detailed and wordy (for editorial cartoons) early on to simpler, streamlined illustrations and captions. One of the best examples is Bill Mauldin's wordless 1963 cartoon after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in which Abraham Lincoln's statue at the Lincoln Memorial is bent over in grief.
All the cartoons come from the collection of Charlie Mahan, dean and professor emeritus in the University of South Florida College of Public Health. Mahan donated the collection to the university in 2006. He himself is a cartoonist, and one of his works, a spoof on a long-ago controversy during the Eisenhower years, is included. Other esteemed Florida editorial cartoonists are part of the exhibition, such as the late Don Addis, who worked for the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times). The inclusion of Garry Trudeau, who creates the Doonesbury comic strip, and Walt Kelly, who penned Pogo until his death, remind us that editorial pages aren't the only platform for commentary. And Ann Telnaes' animated cartoons for the Washington Post's website, seen in continuous loop on a monitor, indicate that the political cartoon has a future in the digital age.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.