Oh, the things you’ll see. The Cat in the Hat, Yertle the Turtle and the Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Political cartoons, advertisements and “secret” art.
Dr. Seuss taught the baby-boom generation how to read with his beloved children’s books filled with funny animals and catchy rhymes. The images on view at the Georgetown gallery P&C Art show a more serious and multifaceted artist.
Educated at Dartmouth and Oxford, Theodor Seuss Geisel, his real name, was an astute political and social satirist. He drew editorial cartoons criticizing the government’s economic policies during the Great Depression and its racial prejudices during World War II.
Even as a commercial artist, Mr. Geisel poked fun at the status quo in ads for cosmetics and bug spray. He also tried his hand at painting surrealistic and abstract expressionistic landscapes in his spare time.
This little-known side of Dr. Seuss, who died in 1991, is the most fascinating part of the fun, one-room retrospective on view throughout this month. Chase Group, the Chicago-based producer of the limited-edition prints on sale ($225 to $10,500), assembled the traveling show last year, when the cartoonist would have turned 100.
Text panels filled with drawings and illustrations trace the artist’s career from his magazine work in the 1920s and ‘30s to his book fame in the 1950s and ‘60s. Most of the images are reproductions of originals still held by Mr. Geisel’s widow and private collectors, serving to bolster the Seuss biography rather than his art.
“Seuss’ largest legacy is his contribution to children’s literacy,” says curator William Dreyer, who spent four years researching the artist. “He changed the way generations would learn by throwing a dart into the rear end of the Dick and Jane books, which were boring and didn’t encourage children to read.”
Remarkably consistent throughout the artist’s varied work is the loopy menagerie of birds, reindeer and invented creatures that would end up as Sneetches, Whos and other imaginary characters in his stories. Early versions of such lovable characters as Horton the elephant first appeared in his vivid illustrations for Judge, a New York weekly where Mr. Geisel worked in the late 1920s.
The artist’s flair for animal animated slapstick landed him a job in the advertising department of Standard Oil in the 1930s. His campaign for a DDT-based pesticide, based on the slogan “Quick, Henry, the Flit,” is filled with darting mosquitoes that seem too appealing to be killed. During World War II, a more girlish version of the insect, called Ann (short for Anopheles), emerged in a Seussian pamphlet warning soldiers about the hazards of malaria.
By then, Mr. Geisel was suggesting that the country needed “a good mental insecticide” to rid it of racism and anti-Semitism. From 1941 to 1943, he created cartoons for the left-leaning PM Magazine criticizing military segregation and American isolationism. Just a few of his 400 wartime editorials are included in the exhibit, but they are enough to reveal the roots of the humorous sermonizing in the Dr. Seuss books.
Yertle the Turtle’s anti-fascist message and the environmental plea of the Lorax reflect the progressive views Mr. Geisel expressed during the war and the Depression.
After being fired by Standard Oil in 1938 (an event noted on his drawing but one that may be apocryphal, according to Mr. Dreyer), the artist created a four-page novella of economic hardship. “A flock of Obsks, from down in Nobsks, hiked up to Bobsks, to look for Jobsks,” he wrote, only to conclude there weren’t any jobs to be had.
Dr. Seuss used even his bawdiest drawings to convey homilies. In his 1939 book “The Seven Lady Godivas,” busty nudes cavort in scenes illustrating such familiar proverbs as “Don’t put the cart before the horse.”
During a stint with the Army Signal Corps during World War II, the artist wound up working for another moralizer, Frank Capra, the director responsible for such films as “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” The two made movies related to the war effort, including one starring a trainee called Private Snafu.
“Capra was a big influence in getting Ted to move his ideas along visually and give action to his stories,” Mr. Dreyer says.
Mr. Geisel got his big break in books after illustrating a collection of children’s sayings for another author. His first book, “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” was printed in 1937 after it had been turned down by 27 publishers. Dr. Seuss was then asked to write a reading primer using 223 different words, resulting in “The Cat in the Hat.” Its stovepipe-hatted main character, a feline version of Uncle Sam, would become as iconic as Mickey Mouse.
Another famous Dr. Seuss story was written on a dare. Random House publisher Bennett Cerf wagered $50 that the author couldn’t compose a book using 50 words or fewer. Mr. Geisel won the bet with the best-seller “Green Eggs and Ham.”
In all of his 44 books, fluid line work combined with saturated primary colors deliver a visual punch. The exhibit allows a close-up view of the artistry with rough sketches, color charts and call-outs to show how Mr. Geisel carefully controlled his imagery.
Less engaging are the imaginary landscapes painted by the cartoonist in an attempt to create high-style art. These Escher-like settings with their Rube Goldberg contraptions and psychedelic scribblings lack the narrative wit of the books and cartoons. Even in these canvases, though, the artist couldn’t resist adding a goofy critter or two. Dr. Seuss’ medicine still works to make us laugh.
WHAT: “The Art of Dr. Seuss”
WHERE: P&C Art, 3108 M St. NW
WHEN: Through Dec. 31; Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday noon to 5 p.m.
Theodor Seuss Geisel started signing his drawings “Seuss” while a student at Dartmouth College. He added “Dr.,” he wryly claimed, because his father had always wanted a doctor in the family.
In the 1930s, Dr. Seuss created what he called “unorthodox taxidermy.” His sculpted creatures, with names such as the Andulovian Grackler, were made using real beaks, antlers and horns from animals that had died in a zoo where his father worked as superintendent.
Mr. Geisel won three Academy Awards during his career — two for military and historical documentaries and one for the animated cartoon “Gerald McBoing-Boing.”
The original drawings for the 1971 book “The Lorax” are housed in the library of former President Lyndon B. Johnson, who was a Dr. Seuss fan.
In 2002, the Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden was opened in Springfield, Mass., where Mr. Geisel was born in 1904.
More than 500 million copies of the Dr. Seuss books have been sold, 300 million of them since the author died in 1991.