Vol. 31 No. 1 · 1 January 2009
At Dulwich Picture Gallery

Saul Steinberg’s Playful Modernism

Peter Campbell

1255 words

In 2006, when a picture from the Saul Steinberg: Illuminations catalogue was reproduced in these pages, the exhibition had just opened in the Morgan Library in New York. Most of the items were (or were very like) drawings made for print. The framed originals would not, I thought, add much to the intense pleasure to be had from the reproductions. Now that the exhibition has come to London – it can be seen until 15 February – that turns out to be only partly true. There are some pieces that really must be seen in the flesh: things in three dimensions, for example (books, pens and pencils whittled from wood), and The Line, a 33-foot-long drawing Steinberg made in 1954 to be enlarged as a mural for a children’s labyrinth in Milan. As you walk along it, the single ruled line that runs from one end of the strip to the other changes its meaning. First it’s water, then a bridge, then (you are now looking down from high up) the point where the building you are in and the pavement meet. A man stares up at you. The conceit only half works when the strip is reduced and divided up into shorter lengths printed one below the other.

Saul Steinberg, ‘Group Photo’ (1953)

Saul Steinberg, ‘Group Photo’ (1953)

After leaving the Morgan Library, the exhibition travelled to Washington, Cincinnati, Poughkeepsie, Paris and Zürich. Its last destination (from 13 March) will be Hamburg. As it has gone from place to place some things in it – the drawings of Paris and New York, for instance – will have found themselves at home. If the show had followed Steinberg to all his ports of call it’s hard to say when its journey would have ended. But it would have begun in Romania, where he was born in 1914. In his introduction Charles Simic says of Steinberg:

The reason we understood each other perfectly was that we were both reared in what he called ‘the Turkish delight manner’. I knew exactly what he meant. When I was growing up in Belgrade, our homes 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.

Steinberg left Bucharest to study architecture in Milan in 1933. Travels that began with a late escape to America in 1942 via Portugal and the Dominican Republic, continued during his time in the navy (where he produced propaganda) and eventually extended to Europe, Africa, Asia and Russia. Roger Angell of the New Yorker said he was ‘a world-class noticer’; he described himself as a writer who drew. Other travelling draughtsmen have come home with what they saw, but not necessarily with what they thought about it. Steinberg’s views of the world are personal annotations of the specifics that add up to total characterisations. In Moscow in Winter Red Square is huge, dwarfing the Kremlin and the line of pilgrims waiting at Lenin’s tomb. Piazza San Marco also corrals occupants, in this case two tribes done in spidery lines: gesticulating natives and camera-heavy tourists, distinguished by the black accents of sunglasses, hair and moustaches. Pigeons, closely related to Picasso’s doves, circle, peck and parade for each other. Steinberg’s images of America are commentaries in which the fins of an automobile, the needle points of sharp-toed shoes, the armour-like seams of underwear and the tangled words of signage on street fronts build a picture rather as words do in paragraphs by writers he knew: Gaddis, say, or Nabokov or Perelman. Exaggerations – like the grotesque nose and chin that make a caricature a better summing-up of a face than a photograph or portrait – extend to details of buildings, clothes, animals and trees.

Steinberg began by working in commercial art and illustration, but increasingly found his audience in galleries. He was a highly successful cartoonist who did magazine covers and illustrations, advertisements and Hallmark greeting cards (from 1953 to 1959 he received $10,000 every January for the year’s batch of Christmas cards and Valentines). But his contributions to the New Yorker, which began with cartoons, evolved into illustrations that were works of art as substantial as the short stories or poetry the magazine published. His work was collected and exhibited alongside that of contemporaries who were not, in the ordinary sense, commercial at all. The current exhibition of pieces from the Maeght Foundation at the Royal Academy (until 2 January) displays a wall of covers from the series of catalogues the Maeght Gallery issued for its exhibitions under the general title Derrière le Miroir. The Steinberg covers look perfectly at home among those devoted to Matisse, Braque, Miró, Picasso and Calder. The Modernism of the 1940s and 1950s showed what cartoonists had always known: that invention is not necessarily a serious business. Picasso when he used a toy car for the face of a baboon sculpture, Calder when he made bright mobiles and wire animals, Steinberg when he drew a cat clawing its way up a sheet of graph paper, brought childlike ingenuity to high Modernism.

Steinberg’s move from decorative illustrator – someone who could produce a witty take on Paris for a perfume advertisement – to an increasingly satirical chronicler of a more sinister, predatory America reflected changes in the country and his attitude to it. He was affected by depression: the reasons were both personal and political, and in his last decades what the ‘world-class noticer’ records has as much to do with the world’s art as with the world itself. Early on he made drawings of imaginary diplomas and passports that display dense lines of meaningless copperplate, flourished signatures, illegible crests, red seals and rubber stamps – a child’s game of pretend joined-up writing played by a calligrapher of genius. Later he would make pictures of postcards, carvings of books, pens and pencils, and gramophone records.

Having a standing in the world of high art and a popular audience through the New Yorker, he was in a position to be wary of the traps both could lay. In a letter written in 1961 to Katherine Kuh, Steinberg explained why he would not carry on with the interview they had begun (she was doing a series for the Archives of American Art). ‘The man involved in his own history,’ he wrote, ‘becomes a work of art. And a work of art doesn’t permit changes and it doesn’t paint or write.’ It is a persuasive interpretation of what had happened to the painters who around that time dominated American art. Their work gained its effect from a signature-like authenticity of gesture (Kline’s black strokes, Pollock’s dribbles). Had they changed direction it would have taken authority away from what they had done before. Steinberg’s own style involved a running commentary on a graphic environment that included comic books, pointilliste paintings, toys, stick figures, various architectural conventions and so on. The 1945 picture of the battle for Monte Cassino is covered with a pelt of swirling lines like a Van Gogh drawing; each of the 18 figures in Techniques at a Party is rendered in a different style: within a single drawing hatching, shading and colouring appear and disappear, as though the sheet were a garden, each part maintained by a different gardener. Style can be imitated, and Steinberg’s often was. Cleverness is different: his work always means something, which is not to say that it can be translated into a sentence. Jokes – and even at his most serious Steinberg is a joker – must offer a moment of revelation: you see them, then you smile.

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