Norman Rockwell Museum opens new political cartoon exhibition

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Norman Rockwell Museum opens new political cartoon exhibition
Patrick Oliphant (b. 1935), ..But I didn’t inhale., 1996. Editorial cartoon for Universal Press Syndicate, June 18, 1996. Ink and ink wash on Bristol board. Norman Rockwell Museum Collection, Gift of the Louis and Jodi Atkin Family, NRM.2020.05.026.

STOCKBRIDGE, MASS.- The Norman Rockwell Museum announces a new special collection gallery featuring the inclusive political cartoons of Pat Oliphant, now on view through May 31, 2021. A Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, Oliphant was described in 1990 by the New York Times as “the most influential editorial cartoonist” of his time. Now 85 years of age, his career spans over 60 years. His finely-tuned drawings have cast a clear eye on global politics, culture, the economy, and scandals, and his caricatures of American presidents and other powerful leaders are world renowned.

The Oliphant collection features more than three hundred artworks and an extensive archive focusing on four prominent aspects of the artist’s work – humorous but hard-hitting editorial drawings from the Nixon and Clinton years as well as personal drawings, paintings, and large-scale sculptures inspired by the nation’s most prominent figures. Newly acquired through a generous donation by the Louis and Jodi Atkin Family, these works highlight political art as a powerful, persuasive, and inspiring form of visual communication. Additionally Oliphant’s images invite consideration of the role of political illustration in inspiring dialogue, which is of critical importance today as has been in the past.

“Since the late nineteenth century, the editorial cartoon has played a provocative role in presidential politics, countering partisan advertising with irreverence,” notes Chief Curator Stephanie Haboush Plunkett. “An exceptional draftsman and intellect, Pat Oliphant has honed a distinctive image of each incoming president through the years. When these prominent figures fail to live up to expectations, his portrayals reflect changing times and circumstances. His drawings never fail to reveal an underlying truth, reminding us of the powerful impact of satiric portraiture on our perceptions of elected leaders. We are honored to add this exceptional collection of original Oliphant art to the Museum’s permanent illustration collection, numbering more than 20,000 works by our most prominent visual communicators, past and present.”

The donor of this collection, Louis Atkin, noted “Assembling Oliphant’s vision into a collection that has found a home at the Norman Rockwell Museum, speaks to my belief that although Oliphant’s art does not illustrate Rockwell’s America, it does draw a proverbial line in the sand. It dares to cross that line and maybe someday erase it, and frame a new vision of what Rockwell’s America can be.”

Since the late 19th century, the editorial cartoon has played a provocative role in presidential politics, countering partisan advertising with irreverence. Oliphant hones a distinctive, repeatable caricature of each incoming president. When each fails to live up to expectations, those exaggerated figures begin to age, sag, shrink, weaken, or bloat. Oliphant has summarized his cartoon depictions of each president since Lyndon Johnson in a series of bronze sculptures. His images of Richard Nixon as a haunting and malevolent Napoleon, Gerald Ford as Band-Aided hollow mask, Jimmy Carter as an insignificant miniature, and George H. W. Bush as a wizened horseshoe player, remind us of the powerful impact of satiric portraiture.

Born on July 24, 1935, Pat Oliphant was raised outside of Adelaide, Australia. His interest in drawing was sparked by his father’s work as a government draftsman and he decided at an early age that he wanted to become a journalist. Uninterested in pursuing higher education and still a teenager, in 1952 he began working as a copyboy for Adelaide’s evening newspaper, The News. The following year, Oliphant moved to a rival publication, The Advertiser, where he worked as a press artist, and by 1955 he was drawing editorial cartoons.

Frustrated by The Advertiser’s conservative editorial policies, Oliphant had his eyes set on working in the United States. Upon completion of a five-year commitment to the publication, he landed a job with the Denver Post after submitting an exceptional portfolio that singled him out over 50 other applicants. Within a year of joining the Post, his work was disseminated internationally by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate. Oliphant’s reputation grew quickly and in 1967 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

In 1975, Oliphant moved to the Washington Star and five years later switched to Universal Press Syndicate. When the Star went out of business in 1981, he decided to remain independent, thus becoming the first political cartoonist in the 20th century from a home-town newspaper to work independently. By 1983 Oliphant was the most widely syndicated American cartoonist, with works appearing in more than 500 publications. In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, Oliphant has been recognized with numerous awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, National Cartoonists Society, National Wildlife Federation, American Civil Liberties Union, and the Washington Journalism Review. He retired from an active illustration career in 2015.

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