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Speaking Volumes: Autobiographical Art

July 7, 2005 By:
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In its earliest incarnation, The New Yorker was determinedly White Anglo Saxon Protestant in intent as well as content. This was at least true until the death in 1951 of the magazine's legendary founding editor, Harold Ross; at that point, William Shawn, who would himself become a legendary figure, took over as editor in chief, and the magazine expanded to include more and differing points of view.

But from 1925 to the '50s, the WASPy image was most obviously cultivated by means of the art the magazine featured. The groundbreaking cartoons and the familiar cover art were convenient mediums to communicate the message. The Manhattan depicted in these drawings, especially when comedic in nature, was hardly ethnic, despite what the city's demographics at the time showed to the contrary. The art generally depicted the milieu of the monied classes, though often viewed through a gently jaundiced or satiric eye, especially in the case of artists like Peter Arno and Gluyas Williams.

Something clearly began to change - in both prose and pictures - during the war years and immediately after. The magazine began to take itself more seriously, and became, from an editorial point of view, a showcase for a straightforward, deeply-felt brand of reportage.

The art, too, took on an edge, nurtured by Shawn and longtime art director Lee Lorenz. Lorenz always held that the postwar years saw the emergence of Jewish contributors who were responsible for introducing, then cultivating, this new style, and perhaps the most inventive and subversive of them was Saul Steinberg, whose work is represented abundantly in the exquisitely composed new book, Steinberg at 'The New Yorker,' just out from Abrams.

All Sorts of Animals
Though the substance of Steinberg's art could never be called Jewish, he, much like William Steig before him, and Ed Koren and Roz Chast after him, brought a different look - less settled, more frenetic and multilayered - as well as a subtle, more nuanced humor to the journal's pages.

The world of Saul Steinberg, who died in 1999, is something of a fanciful mixed bag, stylistically speaking. Sometimes, there is realism, especially in the family portraits. At other times, his universe is purely comic, with a willful extravagance that is still meant, in all its excess, to summon up the world as we know it. Then there is his purely surrealistic side, where everything is distorted - sometimes playfully, other times with a subtext of menace - but always rendered to evoke a larger truth, whether about landscapes, buildings, everyday objects or the battle between the sexes.

His terrain is generally urban and populated by all sorts of surprising beings: massive women in bustiers, wearing even more massive platform shoes; often smaller men dressed in a dapper manner; and all sorts of animals, including placid ducks gliding on mirror-like waters, cats with almost-human faces contemplating their images in jagged puddles, comic-looking alligators. Buildings are sometimes in scale, other times monumental in size, dwarfing the humans in the vicinity and making their forward motion more difficult and trying.

Steinberg was born in 1914 in Romania, and went on to study philosophy and literature at the University of Bucharest, and eventually architecture in Milan, where he also began publishing cartoons from 1936 to 1939.

He fled to America in 1941, served in the Navy, and in the postwar years settled in New York City. He was a contributor to The New Yorker for 50 years, and all of his preoccupations and styles are caught in this generous compendium, which is organized by subject matter.

Steinberg was fairly reticent, like many another artist, about talking about what he was trying to achieve in his work. Perhaps he thought that if he talked too much about the meaning of what he'd created, he would wind up talking his talent and creativity away. But the more you know about his life, the more you see the autobiographical touches in his work. It is not surprising to discover that Steinberg's father was a bookbinder, who later established a small factory that made cardboard boxes for all sorts of uses, one of them being to hold chocolates, bonbons and sugar-coated almonds. Each of these boxes of sweets bore a reproduction of a famous oil painting, and these reproductions were scattered all over the Steinberg family home in Romania.

Saul Steinberg once said that Millet's art was ideal for chocolate boxes because he combined classicism with socialism. Other art he saw sprinkled over the furniture in his family's apartment included Raphael's Dresden Madonna, and the thinking angel, his elbows propped on a cloud. He had looked at these images daily, without knowing for years that they were high art. And versions of these paintings, especially motifs from Millet, appear throughout the cartoonist's work.

Not surprisingly, Steinberg said that another of his early "teachers" was the family photo album. He called them his first models, and insisted that photography had a continuing effect on his art, which can be seen most clearly, perhaps, in his family portraits, even the most stylized of them. They are perhaps the most perfect example of Steinberg's quirky brand of populist modernism.

 

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