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"Opinionated Art": A Window into the Fine Art Print Collections at the Library of Congress

Artists' responses to the pressing political, social, and economic developments of their times form a strong current in the history of printmaking that persists unabated today. In August 2010, Katherine Blood, Curator of Fine Prints in the Prints & Photographs Division, thoughtfully assembled and discussed a selection of nineteen works for a display of such issue-driven "opinionated art" from the Library of Congress' superb graphic art collections. The following essay highlights selections from Blood’s presentation and insightful commentary with additional explanations by Martha Kennedy, Curator of Popular & Applied Graphic Art.

The division's holdings of over 14 million photographs, prints, and drawings feature a world-class collection of about 100,000 artist prints dating from the 15th century to the present.[1] Blood observed that one of the historic strengths and still actively pursued acquisition areas is graphic art that demonstrates artists' engagement with such themes as war, civil rights and human rights, health, the environment, and issues of gender and culture.

Politics and War

Posada en su Taller or Homenje a José Guadalupe Posada (Homage to José Guadalupe Posada) by Leopoldo Méndez
Posada en su Taller or Homenje a José Guadalupe Posada (Homage to José Guadalupe Posada) by Leopoldo Méndez. Woodcut, 1956.

Among prints relating to politics and war, Leopoldo Méndez's linocut Posada en su Taller or Homenje a José Guadalupe Posada (Homage to José Guadalupe Posada), 1956, provides an illuminating point of departure. Méndez's composition is a realistic, yet imagined depiction of José Guadalupe Posada in his work environment. Imposing and dignified, Posada pauses thoughtfully in his labor on a woodblock. The image he is creating resembles the violent scene outside his window where mounted police attack unarmed peasant protestors. By including a wall calendar for 1902 and three figures, two of them identified as the revolutionary theorists Ricardo Flores Magón and Lázaro Gutiérrez de Lara, Méndez embeds Posada historically in the formative years leading to the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) [2].

Portraying Posada as both a witness and visual reporter of injustice, Méndez pays homage to his predecessor, the widely recognized founder of ideological printmaking in Mexico. Posada's legacy of 15,000 popular prints of everyday events and popular mythology influenced succeeding generations of artists. Mendez's masterful use of linocut produces a visual effect that also recalls the bold, easily read designs of Posada himself. Along with fellow printmakers Pablo O'Higgins and Luis Arenal, Méndez was a founding member of the Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP), a collective formed to further progressive movements in Mexico through the widely accessible media of prints.

The notion of artist as witness and visual reporter relates closely to the idea of artist as graphic commentator or satirist. Consider, for example, a timely work by contemporary printmaker Art Hazelwood. His monumental, ten-foot-long woodcut Trouble for Uncle Sam in the Green Zone, 2005, is a biting commentary on the war in Iraq. He depicts American troops perilously crowded on the top of a minaret-shaped tower. Coins, a bomb, and copies of the Geneva Convention of War Crimes tumble toward clamoring Iraqis below. Stranded above, the soldiers search the skies for aid as planes on the lower right horizon fly away from the predicament.[3]

Hazelwood references an 18th century etching Siège de la Colonne de Pompée—Science in the Pillory, 1799, by James Gillray, a leading light of British satirical art in its golden age.[4] Gillray produced this and other plates relating to Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in amused response to letters written by unhappy French naval officers, which the British intercepted and published. Gillray's dynamic, colorful scene elaborates on the fact that Napoleon brought with him to Egypt some 170 engineers, mechanics, surveyors, mathematicians, artists, musicians, poets, and archeologists (who discovered the Rosetta Stone). Gillray depicts them terrified and marooned atop the Column of Pompey[5] as Bedouins and Turks besiege them from below and build a fire at the base of the column.

The Thirties -- Windshield by Benton Spruance
The Thirties -- Windshield by Benton Spruance. Lithograph, 1939.

Though separated by more than two hundred years, the prints' similarities in composition and figural types underscore the political critiques articulated by each artist. In Gillray's scene, scientific instruments and tomes fall upon the indigenous peoples, who also brandish spears, puncture hot air balloons, and threaten the savants falling from above. Hazelwood echoes Gillray's composition in order to lampoon aggressive invasions by large, powerful nations and suggest that history is repeating itself.

In another war related print, Windshield, 1939, an example of 1930s social realism, Benton Spruance assumes the traditional role of artist as seer. He created this lithograph as the Depression ended and World War II began, the year that Hitler's German troops invaded Poland. In his haunting allegory of war and peace, Spruance inserts a small rear view mirror image of idyllic agrarian peace in the upper right of the much larger, prescient vision of wartime devastation visible through the windshield—a barren landscape with refugees pulling carted belongings, smoking ruins, bayonets, and advancing skeletal soldiers. 

Feminine and Cultural Identities

Gathering fruit by Mary Cassatt
Gathering fruit by Mary Cassatt. Hand-colored drypoint and aquatint, ca. 1895.

The theme of feminine identity motivates a number of printmakers, mostly women, from different eras and different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. When Mary Cassatt was commissioned to create an allegory on the Modern Woman for the Women's Building at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, she combined symbolism and realism to signal the advancement of women in a 3-panel, 58-foot mural. Her drypoint and aquatint Gathering Fruit, c. 1893, relates closely to the central panel, Young Women Plucking the Fruits of Knowledge or Science. Acclaimed for her depictions of women as vigorous figures as evident in these works, Cassatt herself was an independent person, due in part to her personal wealth and strong will. By 1915, she supported women's suffrage and lived to see women win the vote in the United States.[6] 

Contemporary printmakers, beneficiaries of the gains made by women of Cassatt's and succeeding generations, insightfully explore the formation of feminine identity in works such as the Women Series by Margaret Adams Parker. In two woodcuts from 2003, Nine Years Old in the Mirror and I am beautiful!, Parker strongly delineates her subjects within shallow spaces that individualize them, heighten their immediacy, and allude to ideas of beauty. Within the horizontals and verticals of window and mirror, the nine-year-old's crossed arms and unwavering gaze convey an emerging self-assurance that will endure, despite such distractions as beauty products on the dressing table. In the second print, against a backdrop of words, a young girl with dreadlocks and a flower in her hair regards the viewer with an expression of self possession that conveys recognition of her own value, which includes beauty. The young girls' self-awareness revealed in these prints asserts the beauty of inner strength, which trumps perfection of outer appearance.[7]

Ambreen Butt came from Pakistan to Boston in the 1990s, where she completed an MFA in 1997 at the Massachusetts College of Art. She produces art that is grounded in traditional Persian and Indian miniature painting and addresses such issues such as the social roles of women through the eyes of an Islamic woman living in the Western world. Women appear as heroic figures in her print series called Daughter of the East, 2008, which was created in the wake of the 2007 assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. In an untitled etching and aquatint from the series, Butt juxtaposes two women in the traditional chador—a central ghostly figure gracefully offsets the shrouded figure of a woman wielding a machine gun on the left. In this and related images, the chador is ambiguous, symbolic of traditional oppression of women, yet also liberating in the anonymity that it confers. The ladybugs in the image can also be read in several ways—as feminine, decoratively detailed pattern, as symbols of good luck, or of infestation. Butt's ironic, elegant images embody the complexities faced by women seeking to maintain their cultural heritage in a world of cultural collisions.[8]

Libertad by Ester Hernandez. Etching, 1976
Libertad by Ester Hernandez. Etching, 1976.

Like Butt, Ester Hernandez manifests strong ties to her cultural roots, in her case, as a Chicana artist, and often employs icons in her work. In her etching Libertad, 1976, the year of the American Revolution Bicentennial, she depicts herself carving shapes and motifs from indigenous Mexican culture into the Statue of Liberty (labeled Aztlan or White Land), which refers to the Aztec land of origin, located in the area of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and California. Hernandez's transformation of a national icon contains several layers of meaning: as an expression of resistance to assimilation, as a commentary on colonialism and the lack of human rights, including freedom for the indigenous peoples' cultures on which European colonists imposed their cultural predominance. Her use of neutral, empty background strengthens the visual impact of Libertad as a radically altered symbol.

Ethnicity and Immigration

In his thirteen-color-lithograph, "The Pastoral or Arcadian State: Illegal Alien's Guide to Greater America," 2006, Enrique Chagoya fashions an expansive pastiche based on George Caleb Bingham's painting The Jolly Flatboatmen, 1846, and Albert Bierstadt's painting Moat Mountain, Intervale, New Hampshire, 1862. Chagoya's title and lushly colored setting reference Bingham's and Bierstadt's idyllic landscapes yet also set forth a new vision or new ideal of diversity in contemporary America. Chagoya highlights current immigration concerns by populating the scene with groups of ethnically diverse men and women, who collectively better represent the current and even 19th century population of the United States than Bingham's figural group. Appropriating images from many sources, Chagoya places heads from some images on bodies from others to create such anomalies as Border Patrol officers with Indian headdresses, businessmen with turbans, and Humpty Dumpty as the Lone Ranger. Several characters' speech balloons quote "artspeak," which mock the pretensions of art criticism and possibly become a satirical self-criticism of the print and its imagery. [9]

Additional Themes Ripe for Exploration

The display included additional beautifully executed prints that address civil and human rights, health issues, and the environment. Heightened legibility of form and content, artistry, and layers of meaning characterize these socially and politically engaged works of art, each of which can be seen as an "'instrument in the world.'" [10]


[1] For more information about the Library of Congress fine prints, see the collection page in the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog: A growing portion of the fine prints can be searched and, in some cases, seen online. The Prints & Photographs Online Catalog also provides access to additional collections of prints and posters.

[2] Deborah Caplow, Leopoldo Méndez: revolutionary art and the Mexican print, Austin: University of Texas, 2007, 226-227.

[3] View the online catalog entry for the group of Hazelwood prints that includes Trouble for Uncle Sam in the Green Zone:

[4] The Gillray image is one of about 9,000 prints in the Library of Congress British Cartoon Prints Collection acquired from the Windsor Castle Library in 1921 (for more information about this collection, see Cartoon Prints, British, at: The collection includes more than 300 by or closely associated with James Gillray. View the online catalog entry for Gillray's Siege de la Colonne de Pompée--Science in the Pillory:

[5] The Column of Pompey was actually dedicated to Roman emperor Diocletian, see no. 77, link For a detailed description of the print, see also, British Museum. Dept. of Prints and Drawings. Catalogue of prints and drawings in the British Museum: Division I. Political and Personal Satires. [London] Printed by order of the Trustees, 1870-1954, v. 7, 535-537.

[6] Mary Cassatt, Mary Cassatt, Modern Woman. New York: The Art Institute of Chicago in association with Harry N. Abrams, 1998, 169-170. 

[7] View the online catalog entry for Margaret Adams Parker's Women Series:

[8] View the online catalog entry for Ambreen Butt's Daughter of the East series:

[9] For more information on Chagoya's work, see: External link and External link. View the online catalog entry for Chagoya's The Pastoral or Arcadian State: Illegal Alien's Guide to Greater America:

[10] Deborah Wye, Committed to Print: Social and Politifcal Themes in Recent American Printed Art, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1988, 7.

Written by: Martha H. Kennedy, Curator of Popular & Applied Graphic Art, 2010, based on a presentation and discussion by Katherine L. Blood, Curator of Fine Prints. Last revised: November 2010.

(A closely related version of this essay was published in The Washington Print Club Quarterly, 46:3 (Fall, 2010), 7-10.)

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  December 8, 2010
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