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Art of the Poison Pens: A Century of American Political Cartoons

Friday, September 7th, 2012 | Posted in Your Library in Action by Eileen M. Thornton | Comments Off

“Instead of talking about the facts of history, political cartoons demonstrate the passions of history — how people felt. They reflect that part of history that is so often lost in our history books.”

-Exhibition co-curator Larry Bush

As Dean and Professor Emeritus of the USF College of Public Health, Dr. Charles Mahan is better known for his positive influence on maternal and child health outcomes than for his involvement in cartoon art. But when Mahan donated his collection to the USF Tampa Library’s Special Collections Department in 2006, it was apparent that collecting political cartoon art and animation cels was an avocation he has taken seriously throughout his lifetime.

The Mahan Collection of American Humor and Cartoon Art began in 1950, as Dr. Mahan began collecting political cartoons, animation art, and comic strips. Later, the collection grew and matured as he began to include letters from cartoonists and notes from many personal meetings between Mahan and the artists themselves.

Collector Dr. Charles Mahan explains an iconic work by Bill Mauldin, created and published mere hours after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy

Collector Dr. Charles Mahan explains an iconic work by Bill Mauldin, created and published mere hours after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy

The USF Tampa Library works with community partners on and off campus, from scholars on campus to cultural institutions spanning the Bay Area. In the most recent collaboration, the USF Tampa Library and Tampa Museum of Art jointly produced an exhibition, “Art of the Poison Pens: A Century of American Political Cartoons,” which is currently on display at the museum.

The exhibition is as a testament to the long-standing and vital role that the visual arts have played in the construction of an American political identity. Sometimes cartoons mock, cajole, poke, prod, offend and embarrass their subjects, while at other times they are lamentations during times of challenge and distress. Works on exhibit from the collection range from turn-of-the-century drawings from Thomas Nast, a great contributor to the lexicon of American political iconography, to more recent works reflecting the divisions between and within the two major political parties in power in the US. Reflecting on the role political cartoons play in shaping our collective memory, cartoon historian and exhibition co-curator Larry Bush says, “Instead of talking about the facts of history, political cartoons demonstrate the passions of history — how people felt. They reflect that part of history that is so often lost in our history books.”

Gallery visitors view Art of the Poison Pens

Gallery visitors view Art of the Poison Pens at Tampa Museum of Art

The in-person exhibition will be followed by an online exhibition later this fall, accessed through the USF Libraries website, featuring selected works from the collection. Placing exhibitions such as these online provides open access for anyone who wishes to examine and learn from the works. Dr. Mahan explains why political cartoons are important to the public discourse: “Because the cartoons are visual, and lots more people are likely to be drawn to the visual rather than dig into the editorial text of written pieces, these can be pretty powerful.”

On Thursday, August 9th, 2012, the exhibition was officially opened with a reception and panel discussion at the Tampa Museum of Art. More than 150 USF and Museum guests enjoyed a lively discussion featuring cartoonists Ed Hall, Doug MacGregor, and Marty Stein. “Art of the Poison Pens: A Century of American Political Cartoons” remains on view at the Tampa Museum of Art through September 16th.

The USF Libraries would like to thank guest curators Charles Mahan and Larry Bush, and Melanie Griffin, who served as exhibition coordinator for this project. Contributions to the exhibition’s success were made by USF Libraries Dean Bill Garrison, Alice Bush, Merrell T. Dickey,  Matt McEver, Eileen Thornton, and Mark I. Greenberg. Written by Eileen M. Thornton with contributions by Mark I. Greenberg.

Your contribution to the USF Libraries can support collections and programs such as these. To find out more, contact Merrell Dickey at (813) 974-1654 mdickey@usf.edu.

 

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