‘Art in Action’ Showcases Social Justice at Library of Congress

Art is a vehicle for creativity that addresses issues that concern global societies. Its impact can be overt, and at times, it may strike with quiet resolve.

“Art in Action: Herblock and Fellow Artists Respond to Their Times,” is a quiet exhibit tucked into a small gallery space behind the gift shop along the imposing marble halls of the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress.

The lucky viewer will find themselves entreated to some of the gems of the Library’s collection that most times stay neatly tucked away in archival storage. The physical exhibit, in the Graphic Arts Galleries, will remain on view through Aug. 17.

Comprised of 39 carefully selected works by Katherine Blood, Curator of Fine Prints and Poster Acquisitions in the Library of Congress’ Prints and Photographs Division, the choice of works to include was not an easy task.

“The essential theme of the exhibition is socially conscious art and a consideration of the role of political artists in society, culture, and history,” explained Blood.

Art in Action: Herblock and Fellow Artists Respond to Their Times pairs drawings by Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Herbert L. Block (1909–2001), known as “Herblock,” with artists’ prints, drawings, and posters by such artists as Francisco de Goya, Käthe Kollwitz, Leopoldo Méndez, Enrique Chagoya, Shepard Fairey, Kerry James Marshall, Favianna Rodriquez, and many others.

Along with co-curator Martha Kennedy and Exhibit Director Kim Curry, the team gleaned the 39 chosen works after scouring through three times the number that could actually fit on the wall in the rotating exhibit portion of the Graphic Arts Galleries.

“Because the Library’s collections both of work by Herblock and artist’s responses to sociopolitical issues are so extensive, it was genuinely challenging to choose, though what a good problem to have!,” Blood said. “In selecting down to 39 artworks, we looked for great dialogues in the juxtapositions of work by Herblock and other fellow artists.”

“We wanted to show a range of work across time, with examples from the 17th century to the 21st century, and in a variety of styles and visual voices. The selections also speak to ways that art circulates, featuring different techniques from drawings and exquisitely-made, limited edition etchings, lithographs, woodcuts, and screenprints to ‘born digital’ posters that were made freely available in both printed versions and as digital downloads,” described Blood.

Many of the iconic works by Herblock, as he affectionately came to be known, are housed in the Library of Congress and are part of broader initiative to regularly showcase the pivotal works of the cartoon artist who was among the editorial voices that shaped the Washington Post for decades.

“Herblock’s major themes across his long career as an editorial cartoonist, mostly at the Washington Post, provided our topical compass and framework. His recurring themes included civil rights, gender and women’s issues, health, the impact of war, education, the environment, and the role of media,” said Blood.

Herblock’s drawing titled Riddle: How Many Missiles Does it Take to Put Out All the Light Bulbs?, along with Helen Zughaib’s screenprint called Unfinished Journeys, in response to the Syrian Migration crisis, are just two examples of the works on view, often colorful and benign-looking until one understands the backstory to the works by Zughaib, a local artist, and internationally renowned artists like Marshall.

“In her print, Zughaib harnesses aesthetic beauty, bright colors, and a bit of mystery—inviting viewers to explore deeper meanings. Her image is anchored by a pair of children’s shoes in the lower right corner. The date of the piece and its title provide hints to the artist’s subject—the heartbreaking story of a three-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi who drowned while trying to reach the Greek island of Kos with his family,” Blood said, adding the necessary understanding of the vividly hued print, whose meaning may not be evident on first observation.

This small, yet powerful exhibit, lets the viewer understand how artists put forth works that reflect our most profound and most passionately held beliefs beautifully and resonantly.

As the legendary artist Pablo Picasso, whose work is also displayed, once stated. “Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth.”

A digital copy of the exhibition is available indefinitely on the Library of Congress’ website, Art in Action: Herblock and Fellow Artists Respond to Their Times is on view in the Graphic Arts Galleries on the First floor of the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress at 10 First Street, SE, Washington. Call 202-707-5000 for more information.

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