The Romanian-American cartoonist Saul Steinberg was a distinctly mid-20th
century phenomenon of a type which is now so familiar we tend to forget how
bizarre it truly is. He was born in 1914 to second and third generation Russian
Jewish immigrants in a small town in Romania, a country only 47 years old at
the time of his birth. His father was a printer and bookbinder. Steinberg later
said he grew up in "the Turkish Delight manner": that is, in a cultural milieu
where Ottoman and western European ideas and styles intermingled and
cross-fertilised each other, though after the First World War the Romanian political
climate was increasingly informed by the rise of anti-Semitic nationalism.
Having initially entered Bucharest University to read philosophy, aged 19
Steinberg transferred to the Politicnico in Milan to study architecture, but 8
years later was forced into hiding when Fascist Italy, at the behest of its
wartime ally Germany, introduced vicious anti-Semitic racial laws.
He was later arrested and spent a month in a detention camp before being released and
fleeing to neutral Portugal, thence to the United States, where he was denied
entry at Ellis Island because he’d doctored his passport with a fake visa to
board ship in Lisbon. He then spent a year in the Dominican Republic waiting
for a genuine US visa. During this time his work started appearing regularly in
The New Yorker, who thereafter helped expedite his application.
Here it’s important to remember that Steinberg’s most famous image is the
1976 New Yorker cover "The View of 9th Avenue", a vision of the rest of
America and, indeed, the world as a small and insignificant outskirt of
Manhattan, just across the Hudson River. It’s often been described as both the
greatest magazine cover of all time and also as an unwittingly self-
damning example of elitist and self-absorbed Manhattan parochialism from a
man who was a fixture at The New Yorker for 60 years. It’s also been parodied
so often Steinberg was finally compelled to go to court to assert his copyright
over the image (a recourse also taken, over the years, by William Hogarth and
Ralph Steadman). Steinberg also grew to resent the image as he feared it
would eclipse everything else he’d done.
That may well be true by now, but it’s a shame if it is. Far more interesting is
how Steinberg, among many many others, fled ancient Christian, Tsarist,
nationalist, fascist European barbarism and ended up helping create a very
specifically (and instantly recognisable) New York brand of highly refined,
achingly cool Modernist civilisation. It’s "Mad Men", sleek cocktail shakers,
lofts, streamline, tiny paper napkins on a table in a darkened room, the people
sat round it barely visible but duly amazed by the weirdness of their own
imaginings. I think you know what I mean.
Steinberg was loudly lauded for his contribution to this aesthetic for decades,
mostly by the kind of European Modernist he’d found himself forced to flee.
Le Corbusier told him "you draw like a king"; he was also praised by Harold
Rosenberg, Saul Bellow, Ernst Gombrich, Italo Calvino, Eugene Ionesco and
Roland Barthes, thus attaining the kind of cultural superstardom few
cartoonists ever achieve. Ronald Searle and Ralph Steadman come close, but
not as close as Steinberg in bridging the chasm of perception between what
"cartooning" is often assumed to be - cheaply reproduced silly scribbles
knocked out to make you laugh - and "art", which of course is something
much much nobler. Or so we’re told. (I have personal experience of the width
of this chasm in action. A few years ago Maggie Hambling & I walked round
the Tate’s Francis Bacon retrospective for Radio 4's "Front Row", and I
described an early Bacon painting of a baboon as so accurate in its capturing
of the baboonness of the baboon that it was, as I phrased it, "caricaturally
great". Hambling was furious that I should describe Bacon as a "mere
caricaturist" and demanded I retract this foul slur.)
Given this hierarchy of cultural valency, it’s significant that Steinberg
described himself as "a writer who draws". Having worked in newspapers for
the last 30 years, I’ve had it made very clear to me that the writing is always
more important than the drawings, even when I’ve answered back that one of
the oldest known drawings dates from least 40,000 years ago (it’s of a pig, on
a cave wall in Indonesia) but that writing is only 5,500, and is merely a by-
product of accountancy anyway.
Like most cartoonists, Steinberg worked in the No Man’s Land between text
and image. The standard cartoon connives at marrying the two in a chimera
made up of image and caption, the one often undermining the other. Truly
great cartoonists transmute into "art" in the extent to which they push the
conventions beyond breaking point; Searle and Steadman, for instance, did it
by consciously breaking lines and overdrawing, like George Grosz. Steinberg
did it by actually rendering text as drawing. In his 1960 collection "The
Labyrinth", just reissued by New York Review Books with a new introduction
by Nicholson Baker, time and again language becomes simply squiggles, or
words themselves are drawn almost architecturally as vast edifices dominating
Anthologised from both published and unpublished drawings and meticulous
ordered by Steinberg himself, the book commences with a horizontal line,
bisected initially by some geometry, and then providing a platform for one of
Steinberg’s trademark ragged crocodiles (on a trip to Kenya with Saul Bellow
Steinberg was nearly eaten by a crocodile). What we can then expect, turning
the page, is not knowing what on earth we can expect. As a writer who draws,
he might be about to wrangle this line into a letter and thereafter into writing;
or it might become a horizon, the surface of a reflecting lake, a washing line, a
collar, the edge of a room, a strand of a labyrinth exploding thereafter up and
down the page. But then you turn the page onto a procession of talking heads,
each producing vast, abstract yet Baroque talks bubbles.
Later on, there’s a double page spread riffing on newspaper comic strips,
reproducing the topography of a strip cartoon’s frames but filled with written
and pictorial gibberish. Then there are pages of window frames; later, some
breathtakingly sparse and almost agoraphobically enormous landscapes of Red
Square and other Soviet landmarks, and then there’s pages of society women
scribbled (it’s the only word that describes his technique) as rather prim,
winged harpies. Then cats. Then crocodiles. Then some random geometric
shapes and some more crocodiles.
Squiggle landscapes pre-echo "The View from 9th Avenue"; some drawings are exquisite; others are barely drawn at all. On one page he appears to
channelling Chagall; then Picasso; then, weirdly, the young Nicholas Bentley.
If Steinberg had reversed the process, and was a draughtsman who wrote and
this was text, I doubt much of it would make any sense at all. And it doesn’t
matter at all.
So, did that cavalcade of cultural bigwigs big up Steinberg because, with
typical elitist pretension, they were reading meaning where there was none?
Or, worse, in that specific mid- 20th century way, they archly teased meaning from the very fact of
meaninglessness? Again, it doesn’t matter, and after immersing myself in this
book, I think I finally know why. In short, Steinberg’s Art aspires towards the
Condition of the Doodle. Surrealism was built on the twin pillars of the
Subconscious and the Found Object and a consequent amazement at the
weirdness of the quotidian, a breathless wonder at what the hell the mundane
could ever mean. Snagging on him in his endless flight from the crashing
collapse into barbarism of European cosmopolitanism, Steinberg snuck
through Ellis Island teeming with the bacilli of the cultural responses to that
calamity, helping thereafter to define the unique Zeitgeist of post-war
Manhattan triumphalism. Like Ronald Searle, who reshaped the trauma he
suffered as a prisoner of the Japanese into the dark hilarity of the St Trinians
cartoons, Steinberg found redemption through cartoons of baffling and
indefinably disquieting whimsicality.
Which means this book defines its times, nearly 60 years ago, as precisely as a
tree ring. Though it’s its timelessness which makes it still worth looking at.