Cartoonists on the Left: 1873-1939
by BK Munn
In honour of May Day, and on the eve of the federal election, Sequential presents a small historical gallery of cartoons by Canadian cartoonists on the theme of politics, labour and human rights.
From the earliest beginnings of cartoons and caricature in Canada, artists have portrayed the struggles of subaltern groups against oppression and hypocrisy. From the 1850s drawings of George Townshend and the woodcuts of Jean-Baptiste Cote in the 1860s to the political cartoons of the present-day, this non-conformist spirit endures. The Progressive Tradition in Canada is well-documented. Less evident is the work of the cartoonists who contributed to this tradition. Here are a few of the key English-language artists and publications from Canada’s forgotten “left history” –taken from magazines published during 3 key periods: Grip (1800s), Masses (1920s), and New Frontier (1930s).
1. JW Bengough and Grip Magazine
Founded in 1873 by the cartoonist JW Bengough, Grip was a satirical weekly full of news, jokes, and cartoons, with a decidedly anti-Tory politics and a penchant for progressive causes. Grip chronicled the major events and social-cultural battles of the late-1800s, including the Riel rebellion and the various scandals involving Prime Minister John A. MacDonald. Under the editorship of the radical writer Phillips Thompson, Grip became even more left-wing and cartoons concerned with taxation, women’s suffrage, and worker’s rights became more common.
2. The Masses Magazine and “Prolet-Cult”
Founded by writer and artist members of Toronto’s Progressive Arts Club, Masses was a monthly magazine associated with the Canadian Communist Party, sharing some of the staff and contributors of party organs like The Worker newspaper. The Masses (not to be confused with the American leftist magazine of the same name) had a very distinct design and featured work by some of the more important Canadian cartoonists and artists of the 1930s. Each issue celebrated “Proletarian Culture” and featured a large woodcut picture on the cover, with every headline and article subtitle also using the same method. This specific woodcut style was popularized by European artists like Frans Masereel and the American Lynd Ward, both of whom created their famous picture novels using woodcuts, telling universal human stories without words. Consequently, it was a style taken up by many left-wing artists in the 1920s and 1930s.
The Masses was concerned with Depression-era issues ranging from unionization and workers’ rights, the historic On-to-Ottawa Trek of the homeless, anti-Fascism, exposing anti-Semitism, civil rights, and left-wing arts and letters. Many well-known Canadian and international poets, playwrights, and novelists published in the magazine’s pages.
“Ric” was really Richard Taylor, a cartoonist who had his start in the Toronto Telegram newspaper on a comic strip called “The Mystery Men”. Taylor also contributed to some Toronto humour magazines and various left-wing publications, including the comic strip “Dad Plugg” to The Worker newspaper, before moving to New York where he became one of the best known cartoonists for the New Yorker magazine during the 30s and 40s.
This woodcut by Taylor responded to controversy over the play “8 Men Speak” which was censored by the Ontario government and shut down after one production because of it’s working-class, revolutionary content.
The “On-to-Ottawa” trek was a massive social protest involving thousands of homeless men and women who rode the rails to Canada’s capitol to protest the jobless conditions they faced during the Depression. During the 30s, most Canadians had no health insurance and things like food banks, welfare, and unemployment insurance didn’t exist. The movement lead to many conflicts with Canadian authority, including several strikes and riots, and eventually legal reforms in the areas of human rights and labour legislation, gradually evolving to the system we have today.
This linocut, subtitled “Famous Canadian ‘Painters’ at Work,” features caricatures of Canadian politicians, capitalists, and police shown with their handiwork . An amusing reference to Canada’s foremost (and still best-known) art movement of the time and to the growing right-wing political movement .
Not to be confused with Tom Thomson, the painter and friend of the Group of Seven.
3. The New Frontier
Founded by left-wing Canadian writers, the New Frontier was a monthly magazine that constituted a slight break from the tradition of leftwing publications in Canada. Although most of the editorial board, including poet Dorothy Livesay, were associated with the Communist Party, New Frontier was much more a product of the Common Front of anti-fascist workers and artists. In addition, it tended to be more interested in matters of art and literature over pure politics.
The magazine was especially concerned with the fight against fascism in Spain, Germany, Italy and within Canada and the US (and especially in Quebec) in the years before World War Two. It was also interested in larger questions of Marxism and art.
Mayerovitch had a long career as an artist and architect. In addition to his work for the magazine, he did propaganda for the Canadian government during World War II before moving into other aspects of fine and commercial art. Some of his work has been published by Drawn and Quarterly. “Mayo” died in 2004.
Cartoon illustrating article about the formation of an artists’ union in Toronto.
Avrom Yanofsky (1911-199) was a Ukrainian-Canadian Jewish cartoonist whose work appeared in The Canadian Tribune, Vokhnblat (Canadian Yiddish newspaper), Outlook, and in the U.S. in The Worker and The New Masses. Yanofsky (or Yanovsky) also created characters like Hugh Dunnit, Major Domo and Jojo for Bell Features during the boom in Canadian comic book publishing during the 1940s.
This woodcut is by Laurence Hyde, an artist who helped set the visual style for the magazine. Hyde later illustrated books by New Frontier contributor Dorothy Livesay and created a woodcut novel in the style of Frans Masereel and Lynd Ward: Southern Cross, Canada’s first “graphic novel”!
Many of Hyde’s pictures for New Frontier were concerned with the carnage in Spain and the atrocities committed by the fascist army of Franco and its efforts to crush the revolutionary democratic Republican government.
Cartoon documenting the sweatshop conditions then prevalent in the big city garment districts of Montreal and Toronto. The mostly female sweatshop workers were historically among the most radical leaders in the labour movement. Petroff (1916 – 2007) was a social realist painter and activist in the artists union.
A distinctly “New-Yorker”-style cartoon accompanying a review of Charlie Chaplin’s movie, Modern Times. The review lambasts the then-current crop of Hollywood movies (like MGM’s “Riffraff” starring Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow) for their portrayal of workers and evil labour organizers. “Redfield” was the pen-name of the young socialist cartoonist and children’s book illustrator Syd Hoff.
(versions of this article originally appeared elsewhere)