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The Loves of Saul Steinberg

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Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos
Saul Steinberg, Vermont, 1947

Saul Steinberg, who died in 1999, was better known for the eighty-nine New Yorker covers that appeared between 1945 and 2004 than for anything else he ever did. The most famous of them was the one that appeared on March 29, 1976, with its comically parochial depiction of what in the mind of a New Yorker the rest of United States looked like beyond the Hudson River all the way to the Pacific Ocean. View of the World from 9th Avenue became a poster sold in every souvenir shop and was freely adapted by chambers of commerce elsewhere to promote their own cities. Time and again, his lawyer had to restrain him from suing someone who ripped off the image and used it on everything from T-shirts to coffee mugs.

As far as Steinberg was concerned, there was nothing in it to make anyone feel superior. When asked what he meant, he said that this is how people everywhere see the world beyond their own neighborhood. He also said that he had to disguise certain things into jokes, so he’d be forgiven by those who might think him rude if he told them the truth directly. He was right about that. One comes away from Steinberg’s cartoons both laughing and feeling uneasy.

Over more than sixty years, he kept drawing at a time when many painters had convinced themselves that the kind of art they aspired to had little or nothing to do with drawing. He drew both what he observed around him and to make visible what he was thinking, often combining the two. He drew a small dog at the zoo pulling at the leash in order to bark at the lion in the cage, and in a separate drawing, a man dressed in a business suit carrying a huge heroic portrait of himself down the street.

Among hundreds of other memorable images, there is a cat sipping a martini with a goldfish floating in it, the angel of death dressed in a doorman’s uniform outside a funeral home helping a couple of mourners out of a taxi, a group of visitors to an art gallery absorbed in carefully studying blank canvases hanging on its walls, Uncle Sam as a matador waving an American flag in front of a huge Thanksgiving turkey, a mean-looking little kid with a hammer getting ready to strike at a globe, and Uncle Sam playing a violin and the Statue of Liberty beating a toy drum on a street corner while two ants dance wildly at their feet. None of these cartoons and drawings had captions, or had any need of them, since they could be understood by anyone. The adjective “Steinbergian,” which at one time was readily recognizable, was coined as shorthand to describe just such a fresh and irreverent way of seeing.

Many of the artists who were his contemporaries also had their own “look.” By and large, they achieved this by what Harold Rosenberg called “the aesthetics of exclusion,” which ignores the world outside the studio and concentrates on shape, color, texture, and other formal elements of painting. To Steinberg, for whom the problem of depicting reality was central to everything he did, there was no period in the history of art that was not worth investigating. In some of his drawings, figures drawn in Classical, Romantic, Baroque, Mannerist, Expressionist, and cartoonish manner stand talking to each other at a cocktail party. Since each one of these styles not only had its own technique but reflected the ideas and ready-made sentiments of its historical period, drawing for him was a form of philosophical commentary, as well as a kind of sublime doodle, one demonstrating the truth of this proposition about different periods and the other its comic features.

Now that his long association with The New Yorker is a fading memory, and the seven books published during his lifetime that collected his cartoons and drawings and displayed them in their stunning variety and originality have long been out of print, it is good to have this huge, thoroughly absorbing biography of Steinberg by Deirdre Bair to revive interest in him. Except for a very brief memoir, Reflections and Shadows (2002), the result of tape-recorded conversations with his old friend Aldo Buzzi in 1974 and 1977, Steinberg, who infrequently gave interviews (and when he did, often made things up for the sake of a good story), kept much of his life a secret. Only those close to him, I would imagine, fully realized just how complicated and tormented it had been over the years. To all appearances, Steinberg was a famous and successful artist with a busy social life and a vast number of friends and acquaintances, both in New York and in Europe, who, notwithstanding the typical immigrant’s pessimism about the world, seemed to have things under control.

He was born in Râmnicu Sărat, a small town in southeast Romania, in 1914, but moved to Bucharest when he was five years old with his parents and older sister. His father was a printer and a bookbinder by trade, while his mother came from a family of small businessmen who encouraged his father to set up a small factory manufacturing cardboard boxes of all sizes and shapes. Among the uncles on his mother’s side, two were sign painters, one had a shop that sold stationery and schoolbooks, and two were watchmakers who expanded their businesses, one becoming a jeweler, the other selling watches along with musical instruments and phonograph records. Steinberg recalled having no toys as a child, only the wonderlands of his father’s factory and his uncles’ shops. Bucharest, he recalled in a memoir, was an enfant-prodige city, where the avant-garde arts cohabited with primitivism. Dada, he claimed, could not have been invented anywhere else in the world except in Romania, a country of conflicting cultures that had been a part of the Ottoman Empire for several centuries, during which time it became home to Lebanese, Turks, Persians, Egyptians, and Greeks as well as the original population. He, a Jew of Russian origin whose family spoke Yiddish at home, grew up among people who imitated rigid Austro-Hungarian social manners while lining the broad avenues of Bucharest, which bore grand French names, with huge mansions imitating the fanciest Parisian neighborhoods, but their luxury cars had to swerve to avoid hitting an oxcart or a troop of gypsies cooking their dinner.

Once he started school, which took him to the opposite side of Bucharest and required that he commute by streetcar, he had his first experiences of anti-Semitism, which he never forgot. He “divorced” the entire country, he later said, after he discovered that he was not wanted. In his high school, which concentrated on Latin, he was a middling student but a passionate reader of literature. When the time came to enroll at the university, knowing that his parents would not support him if he studied arts and literature, he applied for admission to the school of architecture.

The University of Bucharest turned him down because he was poor in math and lacked academic training in drawing, deeming him more suitable for languages and shunting his application to the liberal arts division. With two friends, who were also denied admission, he began to scheme about going abroad and studying architecture at the Regio Politecnico in Milan. He wanted both to please his parents by his choice of a profession they would approve and to get far away from them. In one of his earliest published cartoons in Italy, he depicted his mother, Rosa, as a huge battle-ax of a woman with a face like Mussolini’s sporting a butcher’s knife in her waistband, accompanied by a cowering little fellow who resembled his father, Moritz, in a landscape littered with what looked like broken statuary or severed body parts.

The “skinny little fellow with the big nose and heavy glasses” was nineteen when he went to study in Milan. Except for one summer vacation and other short visits, he never again lived in Romania. For the first three years, he shared a room with his Romanian friends, and lived in poverty. He didn’t get his degree until 1940, but in the meantime he had the time of his life. Milan was a modern, cosmopolitan city renowned for every form of culture from opera to literature and the arts, and the Polytechnic was an excellent school. Many of his classmates became famous architects, designers, and filmmakers, and a number of them remained lifelong friends. In Milan, Steinberg discovered what were to become the two chief passions of his life: drawing and women.

Instead of joining classmates who copied paintings in museums, he drew street scenes and buildings. In a fairly short time, he became an assured and precise draftsman, filling his sketchbooks with more work than was required. His first cartoons, which brought him fame and money and allowed him to live better, appeared in 1936 in a new semi-weekly satirical newspaper called Bertoldo published by Rizzoli. He would publish more than two hundred of them before June 1938, when race laws imposed by Mussolini forbade Jews, particularly foreign Jews like him, to work in Italy. His friends at Bertoldo and Settebello (the other satirical newspaper he worked for) did not desert him. His unsigned drawings and cartoons continued to appear in both papers, something he later found too complicated to explain—how as a Jewish artist, in danger of being arrested and deported, he practiced his profession as a cartoonist in Fascist Italy while changing residences and fleeing the police.

In 1940, with the expiration of his legal student residence in Italy and with his drawings already appearing in Life magazine and Harper’s Bazaar, he was forced to flee Italy and got as far as Lisbon, only to be stopped by Portuguese authorities because of irregularities in his documents and sent back. In the spring of 1941, he turned himself in to the police and after six weeks of interment in a camp for stateless persons, he was allowed to obtain documents and leave thanks to the help of his friends in Italy who knew some influential people, including his father’s two brothers in the United States, magazine editors Steinberg worked for there, and their contacts in Washington. With the Romanian quota filled for that year, it was arranged for him to wait for the entry visa in Santo Domingo. While there, he sold another drawing to The New Yorker, which wanted more, as well as to the newspaper PM and Mademoiselle. Finally on July 28, 1942, after receiving entry papers, he took a Pan American flight to Miami and from there continued by Greyhound bus to New York. Bair writes:

Despite wartime rationing, restrictions, and blackouts, everything he saw or experienced left him “in a state of utter delight.” The “Cubist elements” that became his lifelong totems assaulted his eye everywhere he looked, and everything he saw became grist for his artistic mill, from the gleaming Chrysler Building, where “Art Deco was merely…Cubism turned decorative,” to the sensuous plastic curves and neon-bright colors of larger-than-life jukeboxes, to women’s dresses (short, to conserve fabric), shoes (usually high, with platforms and stilettos for heels), hairdos (upswept into elaborate rolls and curls), to men’s neckties (large and bright, splashed on colorful zoot suits in rebellion against drab khaki uniforms). Taxis provided fascinating bursts of color in shiny enamel, particularly the sleek flowing lines of the Pontiac sedans, which sported a hood ornament that he thought resembled “a flying Indian that derived directly from Brancusi and his flying birds.”
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