As mundane were the ways William Gropper’s work typically reached its audience, the first glimpse visitors get of a new exhibition at the Queens Museum packs a punch. A massive and opulent oil painting of a grinning Paul Bunyan looms above visitors.
Gropper, a printmaker, political cartoonist and pictorial satirist whose drawings populated Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and others, was known for highlighting social injustice. Topics he ruminated on included the rise of labor unions, the woes of the working class, the Great Depression, fascism and the Holocaust. But the first works we see highlight a more optimistic view. Below and to the side of Bunyan, a 1946 digital print of Gropper’s illustrated “America: Its Folklore” contains legends and heroes: Jesse James, Huck Finn, John Henry, Davy Crocket, Rip Van Winkle, Ponce de Leon, Johnny Appleseed and more play out their respective mythologies on Gropper’s colorful map.
The detailed exhibit hugs a curve outside the museum’s New York City Panorama. Exploring it gives a feeling of snaking through a canyon. It’s an intimate presentation of such a vast survey of meaty themes and conflicts, but it also can create the impression that Gropper drew inspiration from between the lines of society, filling in gaps wherever he saw a dearth of justice.
Much of the exhibition, entitled “Bearing Witness,” draws from the collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross. It contains a wealth of objects demonstrating Gropper’s impact on society. Several books he illustrated sit in display cases amid cartoons and newspaper clippings — one says “BEWARE Gropper will get you!” — and photographs of him at work. A birthday greeting from Langston Hughes proclaiming him as a “Great artist and great friend of the people” speaks to the impact of his six-decade career. That attention wasn’t always peaceful; in creating a cartoon series for Vanity Fair in 1935, Gropper drew “unlikely historical situations” and one depicted Japanese Emperor Hirohito receiving a Nobel Prize for Peace. The Japanese government demanded an apology, which the U.S government granted — while allowing the drawing to receive lots of coverage.