Cartoonist Rube Goldberg gets first retrospective since 1970
One of the 20th century’s most prolific illustrators, Rube Goldberg is getting the comprehensive treatment for the first time since the Smithsonian presented a celebration of his work during the last year of his life.
That’s according to a press release from Philadelphia’s National Museum of American Jewish History, which is featuring the new exhibition “The Art of Rube Goldberg” through Jan. 21.
Goldberg’s witty artistry included drawings of absurdly complex machines that performed simple tasks (Think of Kevin’s contraptions in the movie “Home Alone,” Doc Brown’s inventions in the “Back to the Future” movies or Wallace and Gromit), as well as political cartoons with commentary on everything from fashion and sports to gender roles, politics and international affairs.
According to Goldberg’s granddaughter, New York resident Jennifer George, he drew 50,000 cartoons over the course of his 70-year career. “Rube didn’t just draw invention cartoons. He was a marvelous editorial cartoonist. I tried to pull the cartoons I felt had resonance (to current events) without being too specific,” George said.
Goldberg’s Pulitzer-winning cartoon, titled “Peace Today,” was published in the 1940s and depicted an all-American family and their home, while in the background an atomic bomb teeters on a ledge.
The exhibit includes his earliest published works — including one drawing dating back to 1895, when Goldberg was 12 years old; preparatory drawings; family photographs; and never-before-exhibited items like the original maquette for the Reuben Award, which was named after Goldberg, Goldberg’s cigar box and Goldberg’s father’s San Francisco sheriff’s badge.
Josh Perelman, the museum’s chief curator and director of exhibitions, counts the sheriff badge as one of his favorite pieces in the exhibit. “It helps tell the stories of Rube’s family and their immigrant heritage,” he said.
Other highlights include concept drawings and original artwork for Goldberg’s whimsical syndicated comic strips from the 1910s through the 1940s, like “Foolish Questions,” “Mike and Ike — They Look Alike” and “Boob McNutt.” In one drawing of Boob McNutt, and a dog named Bertha, “you can feel the love between these two characters,” Perelman said.
George clarified that Goldberg had the authority to rotate different comic strips in his allotted newspaper space as he saw fit. Other recurring titles of his included “People Who Put You to Sleep” and “The Weekly Meeting of the Tuesday Ladies Club.”
“The Art of Robe Goldberg” traces the development of his artwork and humor, his rise to prominence beginning in the 1920s (“Rube Goldberg” became an adjective entry in several dictionaries, meaning something comically complicated and laboriously contrived) and his influence on aspiring scientists, engineers and inventors.
“He took familiar objects, turned them upside down and gave them some kind of kinetic energy, that you wouldn’t have thought of looking at that object. I understand what he was saying. To what end are we creating all this stuff?” said George, imagining that if her grandfather was alive today, he might draw a cartoon of people hunched over their smartphones titled “A Boon for Chiropractors.”
“Being born in the late 19th century, and living through the first half of the 20th century, Rube saw technology change in the most dramatic way. I think he was attuned to the fact that technological change has its benefits, but has levels of great complication in the name of invention,” said Perelman.
Video vignettes that speak to Goldberg’s celebrity include footage from the 1930 Goldberg-scripted feature film “Soup to Nuts,” which starred the Moe-Larry-Shemp-Ted Healy version of The Three Stooges, the self-operating napkin sequence from Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” and an interview of Goldberg by Edward R. Murrow.
Goldberg’s cartoon of the convoluted self-operating napkin was immortalized on a U.S. postage stamp in 1995.
Although he had a degree in engineering, Goldberg never actually built any of the fanciful machines in his invention drawings. In fact, George said that he was quoted as saying that they were simply satirical representations. Nonetheless visitors of all ages are encouraged to try their hand at coming up with a makeshift Rube Goldberg machine in an interactive area of the exhibition. “The Art of Rube Goldberg” even includes examples of children’s toys, hobby kits and board games directly inspired by Goldberg’s invention drawings.
Said Perelman: “There is this whole generation of younger people, maybe 20-somethings on down, who with the rise of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) as a central theme of the curricula, they have all built Rube Goldberg machines throughout their lives.”
In honor of “The Art of Rube Goldberg,” NMAJH is hosting a Rube Goldberg Machine Contest for high school students. Part of a national contest, it requires students to build creative, yet overly complicated and comically contrived, inventions that complete a simple task. This year’s entries must insert a coin in a piggy bank. Student groups of five or more can register at www.rubegoldberg.com. Scholarships to cover the entrance fee are available. The local winners will be announced Dec. 9.
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