At the Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP) at Seattle Center, “The Art of Rube Goldberg” explores the cartoonist’s long career — and may disappoint you with the fact that he never actually built any of the preposterous items associated with his name.
You may not know exactly who Rube Goldberg is. But if you’ve ever seen Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times,” Tim Burton’s “Edward Scissorhands” or Steve Box and Nick Park’s “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit,” you’ve seen his imagination at work.
The cartoonist (1883-1970) was so renowned in the early- and mid-20th century that his name came to serve as an adjective. These days, a “Rube Goldberg contraption” means a mechanism that accomplishes “by overly complex and humorous means what seemingly could be done simply.”
At the Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP), “The Art of Rube Goldberg” explores multiple facets of his long career. A short video documentary reveals that he never actually built any of the preposterous contrivances associated with his name. Instead, he dreamed them up on paper in sketches that pictured zanily convoluted ways to put a stamp on an envelope, extract an olive from a long-necked bottle or keep the milk on your doorstep from being stolen.
‘The Art of Rube Goldberg’
10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily through Jan. 1, 2018, Museum of Pop Culture, 325 Fifth Ave. N., Seattle; $16-$25 (206-770-2772 or mopop.org).
Goldberg’s “invention drawings” are just one glorious tip of a very extensive iceberg. His verbal invention was on par with Lewis Carroll’s, with his cartoon strips featuring such creatures as a Pootwaddle, a Dunklewimp and Banana-Headed Fruitatoots (pineapples on legs, topped with banana-stalk necks and heads).
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Another hugely popular Goldberg series was “Foolish Questions.” (Example: “Foolish Question No. 40,976 depicts a father asking, “Son, are you smoking that pipe again?” and an adolescent boy gamely answering, “No, Dad, this is a portable kitchenette and I’m frying a smelt for dinner.”)
Goldberg was born in San Francisco and was pressured by his father into studying mining and engineering at college. He briefly worked for the San Francisco sewer system after graduation, but gave up this lucrative job to become a newspaper cartoonist.
The pay was modest at first, but by 1916, following a move to New York, he had hit the big-time. In 1922 his father, now supporting his new career and serving as his agent, negotiated a $200,000-a-year salary for him, making him the country’s highest-paid cartoonist. (There’s a lovely photograph of father and son lighting cigars together in the show.)
“The Art of Rube Goldberg” reflects the artist’s era candidly. Some jokes rely on premises that feel badly dated. Cheapskate husbands wangle ways to avoid spending money on their wives. Chattering ladies have little on their minds except acquiring the latest hat. But, oh, what hats they are! One Fellini-worthy millinery masterpiece, boasting a “beautiful crepe de asparagus effect,” has all of Paris “wild about it” – and in one cartoon panel, even the men get to outlandish headgear.
Other cartoons feel all too timely.
“Everyone I know had the wrong dope on the election,” one character says in a strip featuring a string of misguided pundits airing their opinions. Goldberg, in his later years, won the Pulitzer Prize for his work as an editorial cartoonist, and there are some biting satirical jabs at inflation worries, tax burdens and over-zealous Congressional crusades (including a “Cherry Tree Investigating Committee” that puts George Washington on trial).
Plenty of Goldberg’s preliminary sketch-work is on display, along with his animated shorts from the late 1910s and a clip from a 1950s television show in which he demonstrates a putative perpetual-motion machine. (“It’s all very simple,” he quips. “And so are you, if you think it will work.”)
Note: Much of the exhibit lighting is dim to protect the fragile drawings and newsprint, and some of the labeling is in an unusually small font. Folks with aging eyes will definitely want to bring their reading glasses.