CARTOONS FOR THE CAUSE: COMMUNIST CARTOONS FROM THE WOLFSONIAN LIBRARY

A short while ago, we hosted a visit to the library by Tim Benson, Britain’s leading political cartoon expert. Before the tour, I had been under the misapprehension that our library holdings were not particularly rich in terms of political cartoons and caricatures (with the possible exception of wartime propaganda from the First and Second World Wars). In reflecting on the items pulled for that visit and on some newly acquired (and yet uncatalogued) materials, however, I realized that we actually possess a larger collection than I had earlier imagined. The vast majority of these had been produced as critiques of Capitalism or to champion the cause of Communism.

One exceptionally rare and significant item is Cartoons for the Cause, a portfolio of plates designed and illustrated by the late nineteenth-century English Arts & Crafts artist and advocate of social reform, Walter Crane (1845-1915).

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Influenced by William Morris, Crane aligned himself with the burgeoning Socialist movement of the period, providing cartoons for Socialist weeklies  like Justice, The Clarion, and The Commonweal. A number of these cartoons were collected and reprinted in aforementioned portfolio.

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In its clarion call for international worker solidarity, Socialism suffered a serious setback during the First World War. The anti-Capitalist message, however, survived the war in some of the expressionist art of bitter social critics such as George Grosz (1893-1959). Arrested during the failed Spartacist uprising led by Karl Liebknecht (1871-1919) and the German Communists, Grosz escaped custody and continued to publish bitterly satirical cartoons in the twenties.

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A visit to the Soviet Union only increased his distaste for dictatorships of any political stripe.

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Especially distressed about the rise of Hitler and the National Socialists, in January 1933 Grosz packed up his family and moved to the United States.

In America, the First World War and the birth of the Soviet Union in 1917 had irreparably divided the Socialists, with left-leaning members splitting off to form competing Communist parties. Where the surviving Socialists continued to advocate for reform and social change, the more radical Communists clamored for social and political revolution but made little headway in the so-called “Roaring Twenties.” Following the Wall Street Crash in October 1929 and the subsequent decade of wide-spread poverty and hunger, the Communist message became somewhat more appealing, and the Party began to win over some new converts and sympathizers. The shock and severity of the Great Depression caused many socially conscious artists in America to lean to the Left in their own art.

Illustrations by Rockwell Kent (1882-1971) and Lucienne Bloch (1909-1999) published in America Today: A Book of 100 Prints perfectly capture the sense of disorientation, hopelessness, and disenchantment with the status quo engendered by the Great Depression.

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Other Depression-era artists were more explicit in their condemnation of American Capitalism, as can be seen in a novel told only in linocut prints designed by Giacomo Patri (1898-1978). The graphic novel follows the struggles of a “white collar” worker and his wife to keep bread on the table and the vampire-like bill-collectors at bay. By the novel’s end, the main character realizes that he has been blinded to his true interests, and that he ought to join up with his “blue collar” brethren in the common struggle of the working class.

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While some Liberals and Progressives flirted with Leftist ideas in the Thirties, committed Communists actively worked to recruit the discontented to the cause. The Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) employed artists and cartoonists such as Robert Miner, Clive Weed, and William Gropper (1897-1977) to illustrate their pamphlets and propaganda literature.

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Probably the most prominent American Communist illustrator working in the 1930s was Hugo Gellert (1892-1985). Gellert produced politically charged lithograph illustrations in such works as The Mirrors of Wall Street, Karl Marx’ ‘Capital’ in Pictures, Comrade Gulliver, Aesop Said So. Some of his caricatures targeted the “larger-than-life” capitalists (like John Pierpoint Morgan) who dominated the economic and political life of America; others lionized Communist heroes like Karl Marx (1818-1883).

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Other of his drawings lampooned the bloated, top hat-sporting capitalist class in general and implicitly ridiculed “brawny” working class types for accepting a subordinate role in society.

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Many of his lithographic images provided a critique of the workers’ position in a capitalist society, and called upon the working class to use their tools and strength to unite and take over.

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The Hitler-Stalin Pact signed in 1939, however, completely discredited the CPUSA’s claims to being either a progressive or truly anti-Fascist party in the United States. While CPUSA leaders like Earl Browder and William Foster followed the Party line and opposed the war, they immediately shifted gears and made common cause with the Capitalists once the Soviet Union came under Nazi attack in the summer of 1941 and the U.S. entered the war in December 1941.

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The brief thawing of relations and uneasy alliance established during the war years would abruptly end, freeze again, be replaced by Cold War politics immediately after the common enemy was defeated in 1945.

~ by "The Chief" on December 4, 2013.

One Response to “CARTOONS FOR THE CAUSE: COMMUNIST CARTOONS FROM THE WOLFSONIAN LIBRARY”

  1. GREAT BLOG, SO INTERESTING, CONGRATULATIONS!

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