The picture tells the story

October 6, 1998

The picture tells the story

EDITORS: The photo shown is available on request. Others can be obtained by contacting the Clements Library at (734) 764-2347.

ANN ARBOR—Political cartoonists have been having a heyday since the Reformation when Martin Luther’s satirical woodcuts were produced. Times have not changed. Political cartoonists are still having a heyday.

Cartoons are designed for popular consumption in the cheapest format, says Arlene Shy, historian and archivist at the University of Michigan’s Clements Library. “It is the perfect device for criticism. The cartoonist does not have to justify his point of view. He can use his art to report, accuse, entertain, moralize, or to focus public opinion on any target he chooses. His only obligation is to use his art to express an idea, and to make that idea accessible and engaging to the broadest audience.” Cartoonists have traditionally exposed abuses of power, the corruption of government, and the hypocrisy of society. Cartoons provide a running commentary on events, people, attitudes and preoccupations and reflect the momentary shifts in public sentiment. Although the idea of exaggerating a human form for comic effect began in late 16th century Italy, printed caricature as a form of political and social commentary was brought to its finest in 18th century England, according to Shy. Cartoons were sold as separate sheets in print hops and circulated in coffeehouses and, unlike newspapers or periodicals, were not subject to censorship or libel laws. And, one did not need to read to get the message put forth. The Americans took full advantage of this genre and imitated it with great expertise.

The Clements Library has an outstanding collection of cartoons relating to the American Revolution by English artists, a fine group of original Thomas Nast drawings, and a large number of Jacksonian and Civil War era cartoons. The Library’s holdings range from rare colonial imprints to 19th century pulp magazines, from fine engravings on single sheets to lithographs mass produced for the popular market. There are woodcuts, the staple of weekly, illustrated newspapers, and some original drawings, all covering nearly 175 years of American caricature from the 1760s to the 1930, from Paul Revere to Gluyas Williams.

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