On 2 May 1957 the notorious Republican senator Joseph McCarthy died. Throughout the 1950s, McCarthy’s virulent brand of anti-communism terrorised and stultified US society, leading many innocent people to lose their livelihoods and driving some to suicide. At the height of the McCarthyist witch-hunts the senator even threw accusations of communist infiltration at the US State Department, the Truman administration, Voice of America and the US Army. The last of these attacks caused the media, and thereafter to public, to lose their faith in McCarthy, leading to his censure in the Senate in December 1954. However, the movement that bore his name would live on for many more years.
The first visual artist to have the questionable honour of being targeted by McCarthy was William Gropper. Subpoenaed to appear before the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee in May 1953, Gropper was forced to plead the Fifth Amendment. He was subsequently blacklisted, a condition that would have a long-lasting affect on his life and work.
A political cartoonist who had made a career from caricaturing senators, Gropper used his unique talents to take revenge on his accusers. The artist devoted the next 3 years of his life to producing a portfolio of 50 lithographs lambasting McCarthyism. The series was titled The Capriccios in tribute to Los Caprichos, a collection of etchings produced by Goya during the years of the Spanish Inquisition. The Capriccios betray Gropper’s mix of anger, frustration, sadness and bitterness at his treatment.
A longer discussion of Gropper’s work is available to read online at Art in Print. Meanwhile, you can see further examples of the lithographs on the Philadelphia Museum of Art website.
Images: Top – Politicos; Bottom – Blacklist. Both William Gropper, from the portfolio The Capriccios, 1953–56. Lithographs. Courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art