Saul Steinberg’s Amerika
Review by Corinna Lotz
For anyone who grew up in artistic and intellectual circles in upstate New York during the 1960s, Saul Steinberg’s gently surreal cartoons were a kind of secret language that structured your imagination and allowed you to see the world in a special way.
For those far more numerous people here in the UK who are unfamiliar with this most beloved of American cartoonists, Illuminations at Dulwich Art Gallery is a splendid window onto a brilliantly ironic take on life and times in the 20th century America he observed so closely – as both outsider and insider.
The Romanian-born Steinberg is not usually counted amongst the ranks of the “greats” of the 20th century. But curator and author Joel Smith’s mesmerising account of Steinberg’s career in the exhibition catalogue reveals that he was much more than “just” a cartoonist. Like the man himself, his drawings, paintings and constructions restlessly move across the frontiers and genres of philosophy, social and political commentary. If the Bauhaus-inspired king of drawing, Paul Klee, “took the line for a walk”, Steinberg stretched and manipulated drawing still further. And he continued to experiment with styles and materials right up to the end of his life, telling his own story and that of his times.
Steinberg moved from Bucharest to Milan in 1933, where he studied architecture and was awarded a doctorate with the title “Saul Steinberg of the Hebrew Race”. His cartoons appeared in comic tabloids called Bertoldo and Settebello in the 1930s. As an illegal and stateless Jew in Mussolini’s Italy, he fled to the Dominican Republic and from there to Ellis Island, New York in 1941.
Supported by a network of friends and relatives, he finally obtained US citizenship in 1943, going on to become a household name in the US for six decades. He was most famous for his drawings in the pages and on the cover of one of America’s most prestigious weekly magazines, The New Yorker, but also designed greeting cards, murals, fabrics and made sculptural assemblages. His New Yorker cover, View of the World from 9th Avenue, became so popular that it spawned a host of imitations and pirate products. When it was used for a film poster, Steinberg challenged Columbia Pictures in court and won a sizable settlement. He considered the Judge’s summary an excellent analysis of his art and posted copies of it to his friends!
Poet Charles Simic writes in Steinberg’s Bazaar* how both he and the artist had been reared in “the Turkish delight manner”. They had grown up in Balkan homes which “combined Western-style furniture with furnishings that could have come from a sultan’s seraglio. In every room, the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires still fought their battles…. The United States may have been made-to-order for Steinberg, but the Balkans he came from was already a huge costume party”.
Steinberg was the archetypal “rootless cosmopolitan”. He turned the anxieties of statelessness into the most exquisitely ironic works of art which mocked and parodied official seals and stamps, documents, diplomas, passports and licenses. His imagination ran rampant as his pen invented ever more surreal fantasies. He turned a book of drawings into a work of micro-architecture.
As Joel Smith explains, as Steinberg’s drawings continued to appear in The New Yorker, “The printed cartoon on a page you held in your hands, was the artwork Steinberg had meant you to see. It owed much of its meaning to the fact that you knew tens of thousands of other readers were seeing it in the same week. The collaboration (Steinberg liked the word ‘complicity’) of artist, publication, and reader defined a constituency – 'Steinberg people'. "
You might think that the work of a cartoonist-draughtsman like Steinberg looks just fine on the printed page and it does. But there is an enormous pleasure in seeing the original drawings before your eyes. You feel as if you are looking over the artist’s shoulder as you can appreciate the slightest pressure of the pen changes emphasis and conjures up an expression on the tiniest of faces. The magisterial Piazza San Marco, Venice, for example, gives the impression of a vast space, stretching deep into the distance, populated by a myriad of tourists, gesticulating waiters, souvenir sellers displaying their wares and pigeons swooping, strutting and cooing.
Steinberg explored the very limits of how we see and how the eye works with the mind to create the illusion of space and meaning, mining and mocking the discoveries of Cubism, the Bauhaus, Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. His 34 foot-long mural The Line, made in 1954, is a tour de force. A simple line travels across seas, bridges, deserts, along streets, city squares, airports, transforming itself into water, clothesline, desert horizon and city pavement, with just a few strokes of the pen.
A certain malaise and disenchantment enters into Steinberg’s work during the late 1960s and 1970s. He criticised consumerism, the Vietnam war, the police and the martyrdom of the American Indians. He began to adopt a new persona for himself as the artist. Cartoonist Kim Deitch’s lead character Felix the cat begins to wander in and out of Steinberg’s own drawings as a haunting political presence.
Illuminations is the brainchild of Joel Smith, former curator at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Centre at Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York and is the first full review of the artist’s career. This is THE show to catch over the Christmas holidays.