The Drawings He Drew

Seuss Celebrates the Political

Posted October 10, 2008 at 2:27pm

While the presidential candidates battle each other over character issues and economic policies during the final weeks before the election, a new exhibit at the P&C Art Gallery in Old Town Alexandria makes the case for an alternative, nonpartisan candidate: Theodor Seuss Geisel, otherwise known as Dr. Seuss.

“Dr. Seuss for President” is a collection of Seuss art that is anchored in his political cartoons, specifically the previously unreleased drawing “Knotty Problem.”

The political cartoon is one of hundreds Seuss drew before gaining prominence as a children’s book author. As a cartoonist for PM magazine, he used humor to provide social commentary on taboo issues such as ethnic discrimination in the workplace. It was a device he would later use in his children’s books.

“Knotty Problem” was one of the many political cartoons he drew from 1941 to 1943. Though some of his work seems to have been forward-thinking for his time, “Knotty Problem” looks to be almost prophetic. The drawing depicts confused-looking Congressmen scrambling for a fix to a financial problem, in this case, “finding a way to raise taxes without losing a single vote,” while Uncle Sam looks on.

Peering at the drawing with a bemused expression on her face, one gallery visitor commented on how timely the piece is, given the debacle over the financial bailout bill recently passed by Congress. “Maybe it’s true what they say, a picture is worth a thousand words,” she remarked.

Other pieces are not quite so overtly political, although a message does eventually emerge. Many of these are illustrations that appear in Seuss’ children’s books, including “Horton Hears a Who,” “The Lorax” and “The Butter Battle Book.”

“Horton,” according to exhibit curator Bill Dreyer, illustrates Seuss’ take on democracy, as the Whos of Whoville discover that they can make change only when every voice is heard. “The Lorax” is a subtle call for environmental stewardship, while the “Butter Battle Book” expresses Seuss’ opinion on what he saw as the ludicrous idea of mutually assured destruction.

The moral of these stories is never explicitly stated, which Dreyer sees as being part of the appeal.

“He doesn’t hit you over the head with the message,” he said.

Also included in the exhibit are pieces from his “Secret Art” collection made up of the work he did for his own enjoyment, which he did not want shown to the public until after his death. Among those on display are “Martini Bird” and “My Petunia Can Lick Your Geranium,” tongue-in-cheek portraits of “bird ladies” inspired by the socialite women in his adopted hometown of La Jolla, Calif.

The vivid coloring and distinctly “Seussian” architecture in paintings such as “Waterfall,” in which a stream of water flows through a circular break in a road, is both endearing and intriguing to those familiar with the artist’s work.

Some of these reflect commonly held attitudes from the time they were painted, and not necessarily Seuss’ opinions on social issues later in his life. One such painting is Seuss’ depiction of the Tower of Babel, which offers his illustrated take on the seven deadly sins but also shows some characters in blackface. This was widely accepted in 1942, when it was painted, but would be anathema today. Dreyer noted that Seuss ultimately spoke out against prejudice and — in his political cartoons and children’s books — advocated for social justice and tolerance.

Not everything in the exhibit is political, although Dreyer pointed out that given the election year, and the fact that most people are unaware of Seuss’ career as a political cartoonist, the gallery decided to focus on the sociopolitical messages in his work.

Nonpolitical examples of Seuss’ genius and imagination are seen also in re-creations of the animal sculptures he crafted, beginning in the 1930s. According to Dreyer, Seuss’ father worked at a zoo, so as a boy, he would take parts such as horns from dead animals and form the sculptures into what he thought the animal would have wanted to be if it had had a choice. This “unorthodox taxidermy” includes the “Turtle-Necked Sea Turtle,” whose neck is in fact a turtleneck collar, and the “Semi-Normal Green-Lidded Fawn.”

The paintings, drawings and sculptures are authorized reprints and re-creations of the original works. The original pieces will eventually be dedicated to a museum, according to Dreyer, who works directly with Seuss’ widow to bring out new elements of the collection each year.

Seuss was explicit in his wishes to keep many of his paintings and sculptures under wraps until after his death, Dreyer said. Painting was a private joy for him, and he didn’t care what the critics thought of his private collection. Dreyer also noted that Seuss’ contemporary, Norman Rockwell, was criticized for being a commercial artist and was not appreciated until after his death, a fact unlikely to have been lost on Seuss.

Dreyer reflected on the fact that, were Seuss alive and able to run for office, his books would give great insight into his political inclinations.

“We can get a pretty good sense for who he would be as president by reading his books,” Dreyer said. He lamented that given the state of the current political system, “the world might be a better place if we elected him.”