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In its long history, The New Yorker magazine has had three great cartoonists and cover illustrators: Peter Arno, Charles Saxon and William Steig. It was Steig who inspired me to try and make something of my modest start as a cartoonist, but it was only last month and 60 years later, when the Jewish Museum of New York mounted the first Steig exhibition ever, that I realized that Bill Steig was Jewish.
It was in Occupied Japan in 1946 that an Australian staff-sergeant, Les Tanner, gave me two books by Steig, All Embarrassed and Persistent Faces. The line drawings in them, much influenced by Picasso, were unlike anything I had ever seen. Earlier this month, I was delighted to come across some of the original drawings for these two books on view in the Steig show at the Jewish Museum.
Tanner told me he had borrowed the books from the American PX library. Don't bother returning them, he assured me, they are on my name and I'll soon be thousands of miles away. And so I became a receiver of stolen property. The books are with me still. And Tanner? He left the army and became a famous Australian cartoonist. Sadly, he died nearly two years ago.
William Steig (1907-2003) was born in the Bronx to Joseph and Laura Steig, who had immigrated from Lvov and raised four American sons. Both parents were painters. Joseph Steig made a living as a house painter. At his easel, he always smoked a large pipe. In nearly all of Steig's drawings of painters, the artist is smoking a meerschaum.
Steig had always liked drawing but he began selling his work when he needed to help his family, which had lost everything in the Wall Street crash of 1929. Fortunately, editors were looking for humor, a commodity in short supply during the grim Depression. Talented cartoonists were welcome at The New Yorker and Collier's.
At The New Yorker, cartoonists did not then write their own captions. But Steig was a writer too and held that the drawings and their titles were all of a piece. He ushered in a new era at The New Yorker by radically transforming the way cartoons were created at the magazine. In the 73 years that Steig worked for The New Yorker, more than 120 of his covers and over 1,600 of his drawings appeared, probably a record.
Steig was constantly exploring new themes - and new styles to fit them. Everyone loved his street-smart Small Fry and the subsequent wartime Dreams of Glory, in which very small boys shot down German warplanes, rescued maidens in distress and knocked out giants to win the boxing championship of the world.
Other themes illustrate the relationship of children to parents and dependence on motherly love, as expressed in the wonderful drawing, A Dream of Chicken Soup. Parents suffer too, like the father forced to listen to his small son playing the violin. In this 1984 drawing, Steig, who was constantly reworking his technique, used a tremulous freehand line absent in his drawings of the '30s and '40s. I believe this was helped by the advent of the waterproof marker, ideal for both producing a thick line and providing a waterproof drawing that could be worked over with washes of watercolor.
One of Steig's perennial themes was the battle of the (married) sexes, notable for its dominating women. "I'm the one who's being reasonable!" is the caption to one of the illustrations for Sick of Each Other (2001). In it, the family cat and dog huddle in misery as husband and wife shout at each other. Elsewhere, small children huddle in misery as their parents fight.
Beginning when he was over 60, Steig embarked on a new career as a successful writer and illustrator of children's books, like Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (1969) and Doctor De Soto (1982), about a mouse who stepped into a fox's mouth to attend to his teeth. His 1990 picture book Shrek! ("fear" in Yiddish) inspired the Academy Award-winning feature film Shrek (2001) and its two sequels - Shrek 2 (2004) and Shrek the Third (2007) - as well as an upcoming Broadway musical.
Steig's Shrek was not the lovable ogre of the film but a real fright, as was his quite hideous lady love. On view at the Jewish Museum show are the sculptured models of the film's characters, which are ingratiatingly pleasant recreations little related to Steig's originals. The film's donkey is a gem, but it is not a Steig.
These brilliantly slick models were created by animators at DreamWorks, the studio that produced the Shrek movies, and they served as the templates for the characters.
MUCH OF Steig's humanist work has been informed by his childhood in the Bronx and the travails of being a Jew in the bad old days. But Steig never played the Jewish card and his cartoons and jokes are universal. There are only two known Steig cartoons that suggest a Jewish link (both are in this show). One of them depicts two couples of happily plump characters raising their glasses "To Life!"
Steig could could turn the saddest of scenarios into something wryly funny. In one cartoon showing a turkey seated before a fortune teller and her crystal ball, the kerchiefed lady is depicted soundlessly weeping, a large tear forming on her cheek. The cartoon was timed to appear at Thanksgiving.
Steig planned his work in advance, but his sketches were little more than scribbles; his final drawing was the first one, and every cartoonist knows that the first sketch is the best.
Not all his work was automatically accepted. This show contains suggestions for covers that were never published. Regrettably, the best of his New Yorker covers are not in this show, though the ones that are, still delight.
Steig always started each drawing with a face. He had a particularly fine sense of color harmony, which expressed itself in his treatment of the clothing worn in his little dramas. Gentle lavenders and greens often predominate. There are several delightful "rooms" in this show papered with Steig colors and themes. On the floor are painted Steig carpets that look like phototransfers from his scenes.
While Steig grew up in the Bronx, many of his settings are bucolic. They are idealized, but never over-sweet or kitschy. His animals are usually quite human.
If you can't get to this show, order curator Claudia Nahson's delightful catalog/book, The Art of William Steig (Yale). It contains tributes by three fine artists, illustrator Maurice Sendak, brilliant Pop artist Robert Cottingham and the whimsical New Yorker portraitist Edward Sorel, as well as Steig's wife Jeanne and daughter Maggie. The latter attests to his lovable nature, his love of life, his empathy with animals and children and his delight in very good candy and cookies; and even describes his work table and special tools.
Following its New York showing, the Steig exhibition will travel to The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco (June 8 - September 7, 2008).
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