By MARTHA H. KENNEDY
Ann Telnaes, the second woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in the highly competitive field of editorial cartooning, creates some of today's boldest political cartoons. Examples of her work are currently on view in "Humor's Edge: Cartoons by Ann Telnaes," a solo exhibition that opened June 3 in the Great Hall of the Library's Thomas Jefferson Building and will remain on view through Sept. 11.
The 55 cartoons in the exhibition were selected from Telnaes' generous gift of drawings to the Library's Prints and Photographs Division and include 41 original drawings and 11 prints from digital files (some with color) that date from 1996 to 2004. The drawings on display represent the spectrum of issues about which Telnaes feels most strongly: civil rights, the separation of church and state, the presidential election of 2000, the terrorist attacks of September 11, overconsumption, the denial of basic rights to women in Africa and the Middle East and the wars waged by the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Telnaes draws spare, stylized forms in large, clearly designed compositions of striking artistry. Her distinctive, streamlined style enhances her sharp, insightful views on national and international issues.
The exhibition presents the cartoons in thematic sections: "Put It on Your Tab," for example, features cartoons about domestic affairs and national politics; Pulitzer Prize drawings focus on the 2000 presidential election; "The World According to W" highlights cartoons on international issues; and "Happily Ever After?" includes drawings for the comic strip "Six Chix."
Telnaes' award-winning work appears regularly in the Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, St. Louis Post Dispatch, The New York Times, USA Today and many other newspapers around the country. A freelancer who syndicates her editorial cartoons through Tribune Media Services, Telnaes also publishes a weekly "commentoon" in the online publication "Women's eNews" and is one of six women who contribute regularly to "Six Chix," a comic strip distributed by King Features Syndicate.
Unlike many of her peers, Telnaes did not begin her artistic career intending to become an editorial cartoonist. Born in 1960 in Stockholm, Sweden, she became a U.S. citizen at the age of 13 and completed a bachelor of fine arts degree at the California Institute for the Arts. She began her career in animation, moving gradually into editorial cartooning as she became increasingly politicized. Her editorial cartoons began to appear regularly in newspapers by 1992, and in 1993 she moved to Washington, D.C., and began to devote herself primarily to political cartooning.
"The key to being a good editorial cartoonist is to investigate enough, read enough and listen to your radar," said Telnaes during a gallery talk at the Library on June 23. "I want to do the cartoons that are going to be the strongest. ... Certain things I know more about, I can do better cartoons on."
Telnaes cited major newspapers and the Internet as the major sources that she consults for the information she needs to formulate her cartoons. In her drawings she consistently upholds the finest tradition of the political cartoon, often called the "ungentlemanly art" of graphic satire, commenting forcefully on controversial, complicated subjects.
In her work, Telnaes casts a critical eye on U.S. domestic policies, the political leaders who develop them and how these public figures conduct national affairs. In some of her most compelling cartoons, she comments sharply on threats to civil rights that she sees emerging in the wake of 9/11 because of the federal government's enactment of antiterrorism measures permitting increased wiretapping, electronic surveillance and access to previously private records.
In an appealing party scene "For the New Year I've Decided To Give Up Smoking, Drinking, and My Civil Rights" (Dec. 6, 2001), Telnaes conveys her perception of the general population's apathy toward recent challenges to civil rights.
Another cartoon published on the eve of Flag Day 2003 shows a U.S. flag surrounded by cameras—her way of satirizing the current administration's continuing preoccupation with surveillance even when, in her view, it infringes on civil liberties.
Another theme in Telnaes' work, the separation of church and state, is seen in "It's Time We Put Religion Back into Our Institutions" (Sept. 28, 2001). Showing an armed member of the Taliban next to an all-American mother wanting to infuse religion into public institutions, Telnaes warns about the danger posed by closely linking faith with government. As she says, "I think that separation of church and state is the best way to protect everyone's right to worship as they choose."
Telnaes' Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoons in the exhibition focus on humorous and dismaying aspects of the 2000 presidential election. "The Choice" (Sept. 31, 2000), for instance, likens the choice of presidential candidates to choosing among boring breakfast cereals. "Bush and Gore Racing" (Nov. 8, 2000) shows the processing of election returns as a horse race. Lines of action in her elegant design lead the eye from left to right through the horses' straining, head-to-head bodies. As she says, "It's basically a win on either side, except Bush is just a little ahead, because he has the beanie."
Telnaes focuses on women's issues in national and international contexts in many of her cartoons. Two published in "Women's eNews," for example, "Supersizing" (Feb. 19, 2003) and "Silicone Implants" (July 22, 2003), center on potential threats to women's health that have been identified in recent studies.
Several cartoons in the exhibition comment on the Taliban's extreme repression of women's basic rights in Afghanistan. Telnaes eloquently described their plight in her talk: "This regime prohibited women from getting an education, having any access to health care, and even appearing in public unless accompanied by a male relative, and required them to be completely covered by the burka." "We Can Do It!" (Sept. 25, 2001) shows a member of the Taliban responding to the World War II icon Rosie the Riveter by covering Rosie with a burka so that only her eyes are visible.
In an exhibition full of visually arresting images, Telnaes' caricatures of national and international leaders stand out. These include biting portrayals of President George W. Bush, Vice President Richard Cheney and Attorney General John Ashcroft, as well as Bill Clinton, Robert Byrd and recent potential Democratic presidential candidates. She also lampoons world leaders Vladimir Putin, Yassir Arafat, Ariel Sharon and Elizabeth II.
Telnaes said that she bases her caricatures more on her observation of her subject's actions and words over time than on detailed descriptions of physical features. Her clean, linear style contrasts in its spareness with the more descriptive approaches taken by many of her peers. Manner and meaning are clearly and easily read in her compositions, which express her sense of humor, justice and injustice.
During her talk Telnaes mentioned the late Herb Block ("Herblock") several times, praising his integrity, keen insight into issues and strong drawing skills. When asked, she said she also especially admired the work of Pat Oliphant, Ronald Searle, Gerald Scarfe, Robert Osborne and Alexander Calder.
As a woman and as one of the few editorial cartoonists not affiliated with a specific newspaper in the 80 years the Pulitzer Prize has been given, Telnaes is doubly unusual among Pulitzer winners. Her other honors include Best Cartoonist at the Population Institute's XVIIth Global Media Awards (1996), Best Editorial Cartoonist at the Sixth Annual Environmental Media Awards (1996), the National Headliner Award for Editorial Cartoons (1997), the Maggie Award from Planned Parenthood (2002) and the Berryman Award for Editorial Cartooning from the National Press Foundation (2003).
"Humor's Edge" celebrates Ann Telnaes' generous gift of drawings to the Library of Congress. The selection of works in the exhibition represent the range of topics addressed by this gifted artist, who has recently emerged as a leader in American editorial cartooning. A creator who bravely expresses opinions that strongly criticize the actions and words of powerful public figures, Telnaes takes stands on complex, divisive topics and affirms the critical role of the editorial cartoon as a potent means of expressing opinions and illuminating issues of the day.
The exhibition and an accompanying brochure are funded through the generous support of the Caroline and Erwin Swann Memorial Foundation for Caricature and Cartoon.
Telnaes' first book, "Humor's Edge: Cartoons by Ann Telnaes," published by Pomegranate Communications Inc., in association with the Library, is a companion to the exhibition. It contains 86 cartoons by the artist, including those in the exhibition; an extensive interview of Telnaes by Harry Katz, exhibition co-curator and former head curator, Prints and Photographs Division; a biographical essay on her life and work by Martha Kennedy; and detailed captions that provide the historical context for each cartoon. The book is available for sale at the Library's shop in the Jefferson building and on its Web site at www.loc.gov/shop.
Martha H. Kennedy is co-curator of the exhibition "Humor's Edge" and curatorial project assistant in the Prints and Photographs Division.