By: Mark Fitzgerald
Traveling exhibit honors early artisans of newspaper graphics
WHEN ILLUSTRATOR FRANK King, mapmaker William Wisner and editorial cartoonist John T. McCutcheon labored at the Chicago Tribune in the first part of this century, they were creating for tomorrow’s paper ? not the ages.
But their pioneering work in newspaper graphics is being honored in an art exhibition that recently ended a six- week run at the State of Illinois Art Gallery in Chicago. The exhibit reopened at the Illinois State Museum in Springfield on Jan. 27 and will stay on display until March 7.
The exhibit, entitled “The Art of the Message: Newspaper Art of 1920s, ’30s and ’40s from the Chicago Tribune,” celebrates the early evolution of modern newspaper illustration.
Curator Janet Ginsburg first began to form the idea of the exhibit six years ago when she learned of the extensive pri- vate collection of Chicago Tribune rag paper editions owned by Bill Loughman, a retired airline pilot who lives in suburban Chicago.
“I was so taken by the sheer craftsmanship of what was published then, especially the rotogravure work,” she said. “The other thing that really spoke to me was the imagination involved.”
Indeed, Ginsburg says she was first tempted to call the exhibit “Beyond the Bird Cage: Another Look at Old Newspapers,” in recognition of the dichotomy of this newspaper art’s historic significance and its ephemeral shelf life.
“What I wanted to say was, ‘See? This is a popular art form. We’re not necessarily talking Impressionism here, but take a look at this work,’ ” Ginsburg said.
“Art of the Message” collects a few well-known examples of early Tribune graphics.
One example is “Injun Summer,” a McCutcheon tribute to the season that is still reprinted every year in the Chicago Tribune Magazine.
There is also a ground-breaking “Little Orphan Annie” comic that introduced probably the first African-American cartoon character in a general-interest newspaper.
However, the great majority of the 75 pieces in “Art of the Message” were long-forgotten before their revival in the exhibit.
Early illustrations boost women’s suffrage or luridly tell of opium dens tempting respectable young ladies to their ruin.
A 1938 graphic tracks outlaw John Dillinger’s “Orgy of Crime” in blood-red counties on a map of Indiana.
Bold maps from before and during World War II punctuate the exhibit, with many taking on a special resonance in light of the conflicts in the Balkans today.
“They layered so much information onto the maps,” Ginsburg said. “These maps seem more sophisticated than they are today.”
Raw emotion also shone in some of the editorial cartoons: One celebrated the explosion of the Hiroshima atomic bomb; a stereotypical Japanese soldier is dismembered while shouting, “So sorry!”
“It’s as politically incorrect as you can get, but it really reflects the feelings at the time,” Ginsburg said.
Over and over the exhibit documents how the Tribune used its newfound graphics power ? often in distinctly unsubtle ways ? to sell itself to readers and advertisers.
“They were shameless, wonderfully shameless about telling people how they did it,” Ginsburg said.
No subject was too big for the early Tribune artists: One memorable full-page illustration purports to explain no less than “Time: The Everlasting Mystery.”
To keep the feel of a newspaper, Ginsburg mounted several of the broad-sheets on swinging frames that are turned like pages.
“It’s a tactile medium; people like to put their noses right in them,” Ginsburg said.
With a few exceptions, the pages displayed in “Art of the Message” are originals, preserved through the years because they were printed at the end of the pressrun on low-acid rag paper. Until the ’70s, the Tribune produced these rag paper editions for libraries and other archives.
“Art of the Message” is likely to travel beyond Illinois. The Freedom Forum has shown some interest in showing the exhibit at its Newseum, Arlington, Va.
And Ginsburg, a Skokie, Ill., resident, would like to see the display travel to journalism schools. Further down the line, there is a possibility of creating a laser-disc reference collection of early newspaper graphics, she says.
?(This cartoon by John T. McCutcheon appeared on May 1, 1912.) [Caption]
?(This cartoon by John T. McCutcheon appeared on Feb. 14, 1917, during the first year of the federal income tax.) [Caption]
?(This cartoon by Frank King appeared on March 5, 1914.) [Caption]