Political Cartoons -- Surprisingly Timeless

A new exhibit of political cartoons drawn over a thirty-year period by illustrator Denys Wortman (1887-1958) has recently opened at the Museum of the City of New York.
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A new exhibit of political cartoons drawn over a thirty-year period by illustrator Denys Wortman (1887-1958) has recently opened at the Museum of the City of New York. The drawings appeared in New York newspapers, the World-Telegram and the Sun from 1924-54, and though they depict people and cultural issues that were of note during the first half of the twentieth century, they remain surprisingly relevant and appealing to people today.

Consider: A landlady stands on a front stoop of a Manhattan apartment building and says to a young gent hoping to rent from her: "Well, sir, it's not the room you're paying for, it's the address."

Two of his characters, Mopey and Duke, were men who had hit on hard times (tramps). In one cartoon Duke looks down at Mopey who is splayed out on the street having been knocked over by a street vendor's fruit-filled pushcart. Duke says: "It would be just our luck, Mopey, to have you run over by a pushcart instead of a Rolls Royce."

In another, Duke says to Mopey, who is sitting at a table looking perplexed : "Mopey, what's the use of trying hard to think up a New Year's resolution when you know you'll only break it anyway."

Wortman's illustrations originally appeared in the New York World's Metropolitan Movies. This panel initially featured political cartoons by a variety of artists, but Wortman's talent and feel for the city soon knocked out the competition, and the feature became his -- he produced six cartoons a week for thirty years.

Cartooning Then and Now

While the style of political cartoons today tends to be minimalist and representational, Wortman's work was quite detailed, almost photographic. Wortman attended art school with painters who went on to be considered members of the Ashcan School, and though Wortman stayed with oil painting for a long time, he eventually took a different path, realizing that illustration was his calling.

One of the reasons the cartoons are so timeless has to do with the fact that Wortman had a collaborator: his wife Hilda. The detail of his illustrations required time to complete, so Wortman spent days at his desk working hard on the illustrations, while his wife Hilda served as his on-the-street eyes and ears. She photographed street scenes and reported back snatches of conversation, which showed the couple's shared sensitivity to the world around them. In a nod to her contributions, the Museum has featured a selection of her photographs, thereby also showing museum goers how Wortman was able to capture the detail of street life that he did.

As a result of Hilda's participation, the feelings of women are much more prominently displayed than they likely would have been otherwise. Women on a beach during World War II are examining a letter one of them has received: "Look what the censors did to this letter I got from Joe. I'm sure he said he loved me a coupla times in there where they've blacked it out."

Or two women talking window-to-window in an apartment house: "Believe me, when the war news is bad I'm glad sometimes I got a sink full of dishes to occupy my mind."

Denys and Hilda Wortman's only child, Denys Wortman VIII, began a website in 1998 to archive his father's work. The site is remarkable for the abundance of illustrations, but also included are some excerpts of Wortman's writing. Reading his description of how and why he created Mopey and the Duke is a great way to spend a few minutes. Wortman was as talented and sensitive in his writing as he was with his drawing.

Museum Recognition

This museum-level recognition of Denys Wortman is largely due to graphic novelist James Sturm, who is also the director of the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction. He came across some of Wortman's work and was delighted to locate Denys Wortman VIII and discover that he has maintained a very complete collection of his father's work, some of which will now be donated to the Center for Cartoon Studies.

The museum opened the exhibit with a symposium to discuss Wortman's work, and in addition to Denys Wortman VIII and James Sturm, they were joined by cartoonists Jules Feiffer, Joshua Brown, and Stan Mack. Among the fascinating points made by the panelists was one by Jules Feiffer that very much caught my attention. Feiffer noted that political cartoons, and Wortman's work in particular, were notable as one of the few ways that the lifestyle of the lower and middle classes were depicted in the newspapers. At that time, news stories about matters other than crime would not have focused on the plight of the poor, so the political cartoonist was important then and their legacy is vital to us now in understanding how life was lived at that time.

If you're in New York, I urge you to pop in to see the exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York at 103rd Street and Fifth Avenue where the exhibit is on display until March 29. In addition, spend a few minutes on the website: www.dwortman.com

I am spending another day visiting sites along the Journey through Hallowed Ground and will soon begin reporting back. To stay in touch, sign up for my free monthly e-letter at www.americacomesalive.com.

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