Missouri historical society welcomes cartoonists exhibit

Sunday, August 17, 2008

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Tom Engelhardt couldn't wait for the newspaper to arrive when he was a boy.

As soon as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch landed on the family's front stoop, his parents would bring it inside and spread the pages across the family room floor for everyone to see. Engelhardt, a budding young artist, went straight for the comics. Eventually, however, the boy picked up the editorial page and discovered the cartoons of Daniel "Fitz" Fitzpatrick.

Acknowledged by many as the dean of editorial cartoonists, Fitzpatrick strongly supported the rights of the underdog while attacking the conservative establishment. Young Engelhardt became enamored of the legendary cartoonist and set out to follow in his path.

Nearly a quarter of a century later, Engelhardt would take his idol's spot as the editorial cartoonist for his hometown paper. Like his predecessor, Engelhardt would make a name for himself, illustrating some of the nation's most controversial times, including the civil rights movement and Vietnam War.

Original editorial cartoons from both artists will be featured as part of an exhibit coming later this month at the State Historical Society of Missouri. The show, "100 Years of Election Cartoons: 1908-2008," will run in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of the founding of the MU School of Journalism.

The exhibition, which opens Saturday in the basement of Ellis Library on the University of Missouri campus, will include at least one editorial cartoon from each year of the past century. In addition, the historical society will exhibit 30 of Engelhardt's editorial cartoons in its main gallery.

Both shows are free and open to the public.

Now retired and living in St. Louis, Engelhardt, 77, will talk about the exhibit and editorial cartooning at 2 p.m. Oct. 13 in the main gallery.

"There are more than 8,000 editorial cartoons in our collection, which is considered to be one of the best in the nation," said Joan Stack, curator of art collections at the historical society. "This will be a special show because it will be up during election time."

Fitzpatrick, who retired from the Post-Dispatch in 1958, donated a large number of his editorial cartoons to the historical society before his death in 1969. The collection also includes a number of illustrations by Bill Mauldin, another famed Post-Dispatch cartoonist.

As they sift through the collection and pick out cartoons for the show, Stack and chief museum proprietor Greig Thompson are amazed at how so many political issues have remained the same. Stack points to a 1984 editorial cartoon by Engelhardt that shows an exhausted voter, flat on his belly, dragging himself away from the onslaught of campaigns and to the voting box.

"That cartoon could run today," said Stack, who added that one of the earliest cartoons in the collection -- an illustration by John T. McCutcheon from 1908 -- is a caricature of Missouri being a "swing state," an issue that is still relevant.

Perhaps what has changed the most over the years has been the style of editorial cartoons, Stack said.

"In the early days, they looked more like illustrations," she said.

"By the 1920s, they began to look more like cartoons. A lot of the cartoonists had to come up with a cartoon a day," she said. "Imagine doing that, coming up with something powerful every day."

A 'mysterious process'

Engelhardt, who retired in 1997 from the Post-Dispatch after 35 years, said coming up with ideas is a "mysterious process" for most editorial cartoonists. His cartoons ran Tuesday through Friday and Sunday.

"I don't know any editorial cartoonist who can explain it," he said. "If you decided to deal with a certain issue, say international trade, you might starting by thinking, 'How does trade happen?' And you draw a cargo ship going across the ocean.

"Usually, the first idea isn't the best, but you keep fooling around with it," he said. "There is no telling where the journey might take you."

Engelhardt said there were about 75 working editorial cartoonists in the country when he started in the early 1960s. By the 1980s, that number had jumped to nearly 200. Today, the numbers have dropped down to 50, maybe 70, due to layoffs and newspaper closings, he said.

More disappointing to Engelhardt is what he sees as a dramatic drop in the quality of editorial cartoons in recent years.

Once intelligent and sometimes piercing, he said, editorial cartoons have digressed into "gag cartoons" that take cheap shots at politicians and issues.

"They have changed horribly and gone downhill like crazy," he said.

Engelhardt said he adhered to three principles of editorial cartooning set down in 1944 by Allan Nevins and Frank Weitenkampf in a book titled "A Century of Political Cartoons." Those were truth -- or at least one side of it -- humor and moral purpose. To that he added good drawing. The principle of moral purpose is the one Engelhardt believes recent cartoonists have abandoned.

"That is what separates a gag cartoon from an editorial cartoon," he said. "I think that has happened because the generation behind me grew up with Johnny Carson. I don't have anything against Johnny Carson; what he did was good. But his intent was not the same as what an editorial cartoonist job should be."

As for the future of editorial cartooning, Engelhardt is skeptical.

"You not only have a problem of younger people growing up on television and not reading as much, but there is the problem of conglomerates buying up newspapers and being only concerned with the bottom line," he said. "There is very little local ownership of newspapers. So an owner in New York or Chicago might not care about what a paper in its chain might have to say about a local issue."

Engelhardt also worries about how a pen-and-ink medium will survive in a digital age.

"I really don't feel very confident about the future of newspapers," he said. "I don't know where they will go. I sure hope they come back, but I just don't know."

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