UVA Arts, University of Virginia

Vol 11 Winter 19 Library
Photo Credit: Ézé Amos

Oliphant: Unpacking the Archive

The UVA Library’s current exhibition, Oliphant: Unpacking the Archive, celebrates the recent acquisition of editorial cartoonist Patrick Oliphant’s voluminous archive...

This exhibition juxtaposes cartoon drawings, sculpture, and paintings with manuscripts, correspondence, and personal effects. On view through May 30, 2020 in the Main Gallery of the Harrison Institute and Small Special Collections Library, it tells the fullest story yet of the most influential caricaturist of American politics and culture in the last half-century.  


In 2018, the UVA Library acquired almost 7,000 drawings, watercolors, prints, sculptures, and sketchbooks from Patrick and Susan Oliphant. Complementing the original art is a wealth of archival material, including correspondence, photographs, professional papers, scrapbooks, and audio and video recordings. The collection documents the career of the most influential visual satirist of the last half-century, and perhaps the last great political cartoonist in newsprint. 

Sunday Punk: “Pardon me, do you have a flashlight?” Patrick Oliphant. Printer’s Proof. 1984. Offset print
(Photo: Patrick Oliphant)

Naturally endowed with a certain skepticism of the status quo, a love of drawing, and little formal training, Oliphant began his career at eighteen working as a copy boy in Adelaide, Australia. When he joined the Denver Post in 1964, he introduced a linear fluency and wit—a studied awareness of adversary traditions from Hogarth, Goya, and Daumier to David Low—as well as an expansive literary imagination and conceptual reach previously unknown to American newspaper audiences. His swift rise to prominence, including a Pulitzer Prize in 1967, was followed by five decades of sustained, uncompromising work, represented in a deep archive with great research potential. 


Exhibition curators Molly Schwartzburg, Curator in the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections, and Elizabeth Hutton Turner, University Professor, Art History, explore what happens when a talented artist takes up the profession of political cartooning and utilizes all the tools in his considerable arsenal to send a message. In the hands of Oliphant, combinations of text and image incisively communicated often subversive arguments that slipped past anxious editorial boards. Covering thirteen presidential administrations, he lampooned the powerful, called the corrupt to account, and pitilessly exposed hypocrisy. From Watergate to Bridgegate, from Duoshade to digital delivery—while newspaper publishers consolidated print publications and moved from page to screen, Oliphant became the most widely syndicated, most emulated political cartoonist in America, thereby shaping the political consciousness of generations. The exhibition displays more than 150 items from across Oliphant’s career, including letters, photographs and other documents from the archive, and art that reveals the details of his process, including dozens of his preparatory drawing notebooks.  

Oliphant: Unpacking the Archive
(Photo: Ézé Amos)

Unique among the UVA Library’s exhibitions in recent years, this show includes the participation of six faculty micro-curators, who have contributed to the exhibition their selections from the almost 7,000 daily political cartoon drawings in the collection. Each micro-curator was assigned a presidential administration, from Nixon through Obama, and asked to undertake the daunting task of choosing a suite of just four drawings to display. The goal of this project was to show how UVA's faculty from multiple disciplines might engage with Oliphant's archive in their teaching and research now that it resides here at the University. Participants for the fall include faculty from Art, Batten, Politics, and Media Studies, and include Douglas Fordham (Nixon), Carmenita Higginbotham (Carter), visiting faculty Craig Shirley (Reagan), Larry Sabato (Clinton), and the collaborative team of Shilpa Dave and Bruce Williams (George W. Bush and Obama). A second group of curators will contribute selections for the spring, so be sure to return to the gallery for a second visit.


The University of Virginia Library celebrated the collection acquisition and exhibition opening in September with a week of events. The Miller Center hosted Cartooning the White House: Celebrating Comic Artist Patrick Oliphant, two panels exploring Oliphant and the Scholar and Oliphant and the Practitioner with speakers whose expertise touches every U.S. president from Lyndon B. Johnson to Barack Obama, and the University of Virginia Law School hosted Editorial Cartoons and the First Amendment: The Supreme Court Decision that Saved Political Satire, a conversation about First Amendment protection for the work of political cartoonists.Violet Crown Cinema screened a work-in-progress documentary film celebrating the extraordinary life and career of Patrick Oliphant, and a dinner in honor of Oliphant featured Maureen Dowd as the keynote speaker with Donald Lamm, literary agent and former CEO of W.W. Norton Publishing Company as master of ceremonies.

Events for the public are in the works for the rest of the exhibition’s run, including Final Fridays, a Family Day, and most exciting, a symposium in the spring. Supported by a grant from the UVA Arts Endowment, the symposium will be on the topic of Political Caricature in a Post-Newsprint World.                                                                                              

The Reverend Ron’s Jonestown Economics Patrick Oliphant. 1982. Pen and ink
(Photo: Patrick Oliphant)

THE UNCERTAIN FUTURE OF POLITICAL CARICATURE                                   

News delivery has, for the last two decades, been dominated by an upheaval that has left political caricature with an uncertain future. Newspaper publishers have consolidated, print publications have moved from page to screen, and, as Michael Cavna of the​ Washington Post ​reports, staff editorial cartoonists, who “numbered in the hundreds several decades ago...now have dwindled to dozens.”                                      

Editorial cartoons have long been a marginal genre: fitting into the categories of neither reporting nor fine art, they are visual editorials whose surface resemblance to the material found on the funny pages means they are in danger of being ignored by historians of both politics and art. Yet they are also inherently interdisciplinary objects, uniting text and image to communicate powerful, often subversive arguments that slip past otherwise anxious editorial boards. In the hands of a great artist, such as Honoré Daumier, political caricature transcends the limits of genre, time, and place. Many have called Pat Oliphant the Daumier of the twentieth century, and our exhibition argues this point strongly, drawing from across his massive archive to reveal the breadth of his artistic production and the singular power of his aesthetic. If the exhibition looks back at Oliphant’s career, the symposium uses that career to look forward and ask: will there be a Daumier or Oliphant of the twenty-first century, if the newspaper as we knew it continues to decline?                                                                

Jimmy Carter and his staff, Unidentified photographer ca. 1980
(Photo: Unknown)

At the same time that political cartoonists are losing their traditional home on the editorial page, we have seen a surge of online and print publishing of cartoons, in the form of webcomics and graphic novels respectively. Highly visual mainstream periodicals such as The New Yorker and McSweeney’s flourish, and newsprint is by no means entirely gone. Indeed, the cartoons that inflamed extremists to murder twelve employees at​Charlie Hebdo ​in France in 2015 were responding to images printed on paper. Yet while printed tropes such as Oliphant’s rendering of Obama as a mysterious Easter Island figure were widely influential just a decade ago, today’s most prominent caricature is arguably the massive Trump Baby balloon that has floated above public events around the globe. As political rifts widen into chasms, and audiences can filter their news streams to view only the images that amplify their own political tendencies, where and how will political caricature and satire thrive? This symposium is a unique opportunity to bring together practicing artists, journalists, editors, and scholars from art, politics, history, public policy, law, and other fields into a shared space to discuss a once ubiquitous genre of art that is in a state of critical transformation.

The symposium will include artists, editors, and scholars from across multiple generations. Fundamental to the symposium’s success will be the voices of younger artists whose careers are not yet set in stone. Our UVA Arts Endowment grant will make possible invitations to Five Under Fifty, younger caricaturists who have found ways to make an impact with political cartoons in today’s fractured publishing environment. These participants will engage in dialogue with one another, other symposium speakers, and UVA students. Some will run masterclasses or question-and-answer sessions for UVA undergraduate and graduate students the day after the symposium ends, enabling us to engage students in important conversations about their own political visual environment. Dates and participants will be announced soon.

- Holly RobertsonMolly Schwartzburg, & Elizabeth Hutton Turner

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