Obituary: Saul Steinberg

Martin Plimmer
Monday 17 May 1999 23:02

SAUL STEINBERG was a rarity: a cartoonist whose work provoked the question "Is it art?" Even those who denied it were forced to debate it.

Certainly Steinberg's narrow line unravels unexpected mystery and philosophical depth. For this he was venerated by that most aesthetic of cultural magazines, the New Yorker, his work has been exhibited at major galleries in America and Europe, permanent collections are held at the Metropolitan Museum and Museum of Modern Art in New York, and he is one of an elite group of artists, including Picasso, Chagall, Mir and Dal, to have illustrated the label of a Rothschild vintage. The 1983 Chateau Mouton is a fine looking wine.

None of this seemed to surprise Steinberg, who regarded fame as an exquisite imposition. He was perfectly clear in his own mind about his importance, a confidence that lent authority to his idiosyncratic renderings of the world, but could dismay younger cartoonists like Edward Koren, who recalls a cold, Olympian manner at a rare meeting at a dinner party. "I said, `You know, Saul, you've been a profound influence on me.' He looked at me chillily and said, `I would be surprised if I wasn't'."

Meeting other cartoonists wasn't a Steinberg priority. "We all know each other," says Alex Noel Watson, one of the few British cartoonists to have their work accepted by the New Yorker, "but few of us have met Steinberg. He's an older generation and a much greater figure."

Steinberg was a more familiar figure to the New Yorker page make-up department. He saw himself primarily as a published artist and was meticulously interested in the production process, attending meetings to discuss the finer points of reproduction and following the progress of his work through to its final stages, particularly when he had illustrated a cover. The New Yorker was part of his life; for 50 years their fates were linked, his graphic style, along with that of a handful of others - Peter Arno, James Thurber, Charles Addams - synonymous with it.

He was philosophical about the process of marketing an artist, as he was about everything. "People who see a drawing in the New Yorker will think automatically that it's funny because it is a cartoon," he said. "If they see it in a museum, they think it is artistic; and if they find it in a fortune cookie they think it is a prediction."

Steinberg was fond of such aphorisms, the verbal equivalents of his pictures, which themselves were often full of words, sometimes illegibly scrawled in speech bubbles, sometimes surreally dominating an entire landscape, sometimes stacked in piles, in graphic hierarchies. In one cartoon a battalion of identical men in business suits march under an elaborately lettered banner bearing the word "Etc". "Drawing is just a way of reasoning on paper," he said. The art critic Harold Rosenberg described Steinberg as "a writer of pictures, an architect of speech and sounds, a draftsman of philosophical reflections".

But words were just one aspect of the extensive Steinberg vocabulary. He also drew the sounds musical instruments made, gave maps tangible personality traits, saddled figures with giant thumb-print heads. Superficially disconnected visual icons appear Dal-like in his landscapes: street-sharp crocodiles, Easter bunnies, Lady Liberty, disembodied questionmarks, the Chrysler building, cheerleaders, businessmen knights on horseback. In An American Corrida, Uncle Sam, wearing a stars and stripes hat and cape, is a toreador taunting a giant turkey. His picadors appear in the background, like hieroglyphs. They are Mickey Mouse and Santa Claus. Sure it's a joke; but what else is going on?

This was a vision of America that cultured Americans found irresistibly fascinating. It was a vision given more resonance by the fact that Steinberg was not a native American. He admired and was appalled by the place and his versions of it always retained the significance of a stranger's viewpoint, a vibrancy which, when Steinberg first submitted work to the New Yorker in 1940, its charismatic proprietor Harold Ross spotted immediately.

Such a rapid promotion to the New Yorker Pantheon is astonishing. To most cartoonists even a single appearance in the magazine represents an achievement to be engraved at the top of the CV. The weekly submissions pile is enormous, the rejection pile not discernibly smaller.

Steinberg submitted as a Jewish Romanian refugee fleeing Europe, who had been denied immigration rights to the United States because the Romanian quota was already full. His adoption by the New Yorker reads like a cartoonist's fairy tale.

He was born in Romania in 1914, the son of a printer and box manufacturer. Significantly, he said that he would have been a writer if he had inherited a good language. Instead he went to Bucharest to study psychology and then to Milan to study architecture, learning his skills as a draughtsman along the way (selling drawings to the satirical publication Bertoldo) and graduating as a Doctor of Architecture in 1940. His diploma carried the words "To Saul Steinberg di razza Ebraica [`of the Jewish race']" and was signed by "Victor Emmanuel III, King of Italy, King of Albania, Emperor of Ethiopia". This document had all the elements of a classic Steinberg cartoon.

"It was some kind of safeguard for the future," Steinberg said later, "meaning that although I was a doctor, I could be boycotted from practising, since I am a Jew. The beauty for me is that this diploma was given by the king but he is no longer king of Italy. He is no more king of Albania. He is not even the emperor of Ethiopia, and I am not an architect. The only thing that remains is `razza Ebraica'."

In 1940 life as a Jew in Italy became intolerable and Steinberg fled to Portugal using a dubious passport authorised with a rubber stamp made by himself, and from there to the Dominican Republic. His first cartoon, a reverse centaur with a horse's head and a man's rear, appeared in the New Yorker in 1941 and Steinberg himself appeared in New York the next year, sponsored by the magazine.

He married a painter, Hedda Lindenberg Sterne (they separated in the 1970s but never divorced), and was given an ensign's commission in the Navy. He served in China and India, all the time sending reportage sketches back to the New Yorker. Later he covered the Nuremberg Trials for the New Yorker.

During the 1950s, New Yorker covers by him appeared with increasing frequency (he did 85 covers and 642 drawings for the New Yorker in his career). His style became more abstract and symbolic. His drawings were often less humorous than curious. He was fascinated by the processes of bureaucracy and the pretensions of art. He drew artists becoming entangled in the fanciful designs coming out of their own pens. He would often represent himself as an animal, or as a rabbit peering out of a man's head. His alter ego, Harold Rosenberg said, was "detached, curious, passive and fearful".

But always there was that fascination with America, which he studied intently and with an admiring but critical European eye, travelling to all 50 states and returning with booty to horde in his drawings: kidney- shaped swimming pools, highways, yellow cabs mustering like bees . . . The New Yorker cover of 26 March 1976 bore his most famous illustration - A View of the World from 9th Avenue. It was a perspective looking due west from a detailed Manhattan, taking in the rest of America as a more or less formless mass and in the distance, as indefinable shapes, the Pacific Ocean and China. It was a perfect encapsulation of a self-centred world perspective, though it was an idea which was frequently copied, much to the annoyance of the artist.

Saul Steinberg was not in any sense a conventional cartoonist but he was one of the most original and influential cartoonists of the century, his thin yet persistently dynamic line elegantly spanning the divide between fine cartooning and fine art.

Martin Plimmer

Saul Steinberg, cartoonist and artist: born Ramnic-Sarat, Romania 15 June 1914; married 1943 Hedda Lindenberg Sterne; died New York 12 May 1999.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in