Cartoonists' show at the Walters mixes good humor with bad news

June 13, 1995|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

In describing the purpose of the political satire, Kevin Kallaugher quotes "that great English philosopher," Mary Poppins: " 'A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.' "

"That's pretty much what the political cartoon or political satire does," says Kallaugher, better known as Kal, the editorial cartoonist for The Baltimore Sun and the British magazine The Economist. "It can deliver an unpalatable or unsavory message in a more pleasing style through humor or through graphic wizardry."

Beginning today, there are spoonfuls of political satire all over the walls at the Walters Art Gallery. Some are complex and multi-paneled. Some are as simple as a 1984 Lee Jones cartoon from the Kansas City Times; on the day the paper endorsed Ronald Reagan for president, Jones depicted himself -- a lone figure in the center of the cartoon -- holding his nose and pointing to the editorial.

The show, called "Worth a Thousand Words: A Picture of Contemporary Political Satire," contains about 120 works by more than 50 cartoonists, including 20 Pulitzer Prize winners. Kallaugher was its guest curator.

The exhibit was timed to coincide with a meeting in Baltimore later this month of the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists, of which Kallaugher is past president. "I wanted to share their wealth with the people of Baltimore," says the artist.

But the show is more than just a group of political cartoons. "We could have done that, and people would have liked it," says Kallaugher, "but I wanted to make it more educational, more comprehensive, to have the context of history and show how we do it, where we get our ideas, and widen it to painting, sculpture and animation; to give some idea of the range of political satire."

The exhibit begins with a brief historical overview, citing the 19th century French satirist Honore Daumier and the American 19th century figure Thomas Nast, known as "the father of American cartooning." William R. Johnston, the Walters curator who assisted Kallaugher with the show, says the Daumiers and other works in the Walters collection justified the gallery doing a show on satire.

"The Walterses, William and Henry, were interested in satirical artists," he says. "They bought Daumier watercolors, and we have a large collection of the work of the artist who went by the single name Gavarni, a contemporary of Daumier in the field of social satire.

"And there are some American cartoons among our 19th-century American holdings," he adds. "The Walters likes to draw a connection between a present art form and the art of the past in its own collection."

The bulk of the show, however, is devoted to contemporary works, many by artists whose names will be familiar: Jeff Danziger, Jules Feiffer, Herblock, David Levine, Jeff MacNelly and Pat Oliphant among them.

Very much a part of the show is the description of how a newspaper cartoonist works, how he develops his ideas from sketches to finished product, and the devices he uses, such as symbolic figures (think of the Democratic donkey and the Republican elephant, developed by Nast).

While the show covers a broader spectrum than the political cartoon, it concentrates on that. "There are six types of cartoon," Kallaugher says. "The gag cartoon of one single panel, such as you see in the New Yorker; the comic strip, with several panels and recognizable characters; the comic book, which has a narrative; the animated cartoon, with hundreds of thousands of drawings; the caricature, and the political cartoon.

"I think of the political cartoonist as the decathlon artist, because he has to create in many of those areas -- the single panel, the caricature, the comic strip -- and he's not just a humorist, he's a journalist."

But the decathlon artist may be on the wane. Kallaugher thinks that with the shrinking number of newspapers and the ascendancy of television, the day of newspaper political cartoonists may be on the wane. "We may be one of the last generations of editorial cartoonists," he says. If so, as this show amply demonstrates, newspaper readers face a more bleak future.

QUICK ON THE DRAW

What: "Worth a Thousand Words: A Picture of Contemporary Political Satire"

Where: The Walters Art Gallery, 600 N. Charles St.

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, through Jan. 21

Admission: $4 adults, $3 seniors, free to students and ages 18 and under

Call: (410) 547-9000

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