Exhibiting the Political Cartoons of Avrom Yanovsky
Born in Krivoy Rog, Ukraine, in 1911, Avrom came to Canada at the age of two with his widowed mother, her parents and his infant brother. They settled in Winnipeg, where Avrom attended the I.L Peretz Shule. His 1925 graduating class included the late Nechama Gemeril, who later became a Yiddish teacher in left-wing shules and Avrom's wife. The school provided an excellent grounding in the Yiddish classics and revolutionary politics, which stayed with Avrom throughout his life. His mother, a seamstress, and an active Bundist in the old country, became a Labour Zionist and emigrated to Palestine with Avrom's brother in 1931.
The excellent program notes of the exhibit's curator, Anna Hudson, Assistant Professor of Canadian Art and Cultural Studies at York University, state that "All [cartoons] are animated by a cast of easily recognizable characters: the moneybag, the banker, the capitalist, and the politician-with his police or military side-kick. [Avrom] saved the leading role for the worker: an idealized representation of Labour, who endured the endless greed and buffoonery of capital and political power. We can laugh at the tragedy of economic inequity because Avrom speaks to us personally to remind us of our humanity, our common ground, and our collective strength ?. What is so surprising about his political cartoons is how relevant the messages remain. We continue to be tightly bound by oil cartels who determine price and availability ?. "
The exhibited works were categorized under headings such as "Labour," "Israel and the Middle East," "Oil," "Prejudice" (racism and anti-Semitism), and "Canada-U.S. Relations." In the various works I noted the faces of some very well-known politicians and newsworthy figures of their day (John Diefenbaker, Ernest Bevin, Pierre Trudeau, Moshe Dayan, Richard Nixon, Adolph Hitler, etc.) -some of these faces and names being unfamiliar to most in younger generations. Their recognition, of course, add to the appreciation of Avrom's works because they relate to specific events many will recall. Nonetheless, they are still generically relevant to those less aware of the specific historical issues of the times when they were created.
Walking through the gallery, we relived history from a uniquely progressive perspective. Avrom's art was profound, often direct and biting without being morose. Viewing the works, one instantly discerns the humanity and compassion-or contempt-that Avrom had for the subjects or topics of his cartoons. His inimitable sense of humour often peers through. This collection of his original ink drawings also incorporates newspaper clippings, plus Avrom's faint blue corrections and notes to editors. Regrettably, the quality of the glue used and the amount of acid in the old newsprint has resulted in the discolouration of the clippings and made it difficult (but not impossible) to read the important content.
For example, the cartoon used to advertise this exhibit
was a "framed painting" captioned "UNCLE SAM and ANTI-CANADIAN."
The two figures in the frame are clasping hands around an upright sword
(really an ICBM-Intercontinental Ballistic Missile). Uncle Sam is one
side, and, on the other side, a buxom lass in an army helmet and wearing
ICBM earings. The face beneath the army helmet is that of then-Canadian
Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson; it's identifiable by his trademark bow
tie. It was Pearson's Liberal government which agreed to join the U.S.
in creating NORAD (North American Radar Air Defence), the Cold War missile-launching
organization on Canadian soil which still exists today.
Avrom's work appeared in a myriad of English and Yiddish left-wing publications through the international World News Services-in the U.S. in The Worker, The Masses, Yungvarg (Youngsters-a Yiddish children's magazine), and in Canada, in The Canadian Tribune, Vokhnblat (Canadian Jewish Weekly-Yiddish forerunner of Outlook ), New Frontiers, a cultural magazine, and, of course, Outlook !
Avrom, a Jew, a Communist, an artist, a worker, devoted
to his family, and a "mentsh," is beloved by generations of
former children of Toronto's Morris Winchevsky School and Camp Naivelt.
They fondly recall the "chalk talks" which he gave at meetings
and conventions. Standing in front of a crowd, a large pad of newsprint
tacked to an easel beside him, and recalling the news from the morning
paper, he speedily sketched, with a piece of dark chalk (later broad marker
crayons, and later still, felt markers) an often humorous play on words,
or biting indictment or portrayal of a reactionary public personality
or socio-political issue at hand. At children's events he asked youngsters
to "come up and make a mark or scribble" on the pad, and with
only a moment of contemplation, turned it into another brilliant cartoon
on a relevant subject. He was a constant stutterer, which those who only
saw his performances never knew.
There is doubtlessly enough material to hold several additional exhibits. This one owes its success to Anna Hudson's care in the selection and the scope of works of the period which it covers. This exhibit should not be missed if you have a future opportunity to view it. Anna hopes that the exhibit will travel. We plan to display it again in Toronto's Winchevsky Centre this spring, and will pursue its showing in Winnipeg and Vancouver. Keep watching these pages!
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