Showing posts from April, 2006


Paging through Victorian era magazines you will find thousands of dull, unimaginative illustrations that long ago ceased to have relevance to anyone. But every once in a while you find an illustration that leaps off the page, grabs you by the lapels and shakes you. The rare artist with "the spark" still stands out.

Most of his peers have been blissfully forgotten, but English illustrator William Hatherell (1855-1928) had "the spark" and deserves to be remembered for it.

This drawing overcomes every disadvantage that the world could throw in its way: working in black and white with charcoal and wash, reproduced in a publication with poor printing quality in a period when the prevailing style was largely fusty and stolid, Hatherell produced a picture of striking strength and vitality measured by the most modern standards.

His composition has all the verve and excitement of an illustration from America in the 1960s. His potent use of values, his vigorous strokes and the …


Perhaps the best political cartoonist to emerge from the smoking cauldron of World War II was David Low. 

The power of his simple, clear drawings took him halfway around the world and protected him from many forms of censorship.

Low was born in a small town in New Zealand in 1891. He learned to draw from studying the pictures in old magazines in the back of a second hand bookshop. The popular style when Low was growing up was fancy, elaborate linework the way Charles Dana Gibson, Charles Keene and Norman Lindsay drew. Low wanted a simpler, cleaner look. His goal was to combine "quality with apparent facility."

Low's direct, powerful style stood out from other editorial art of the day and brought him to the attention of local New Zealand publications, which then brought him offers of employment from Australia, and later from England where the richest and most powerful newspapers bid fiercely for his services. From this forum, Low waged a brilliant graphic assault on the Nazi…


For most of the 20th century, the primary gripe against illustration was its simple-minded content. No matter how talented or skillful the artist, illustrations for silly romantic fiction in women's magazines or childish advertising slogans just could not be taken seriously.

How odd, then, that in recent years this situation has completely reversed: we have changed from sophisticated illustrations of cartoonish subjects to cartoonish illustrations of sophisticated subjects. Illustrators now deal with the most adult and graphic content, but do so using simple, child-like forms.

Art Spiegelman's crudely drawn comics of talking mice confronting torture and genocide in Nazi death camps won Spiegelman a pulitzer prize.

Child-like pictures by Debbie Drechsler convey blood curdling stories of incest and molestation.

Chris Ware portrays bleakness and alienation using simplistic diagrams reminiscent of industrial instruction manuals.

This trend is evident from the changing mix of artwork in…


© The Saul Steinberg Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

In the whole long clanging pageant of art, no artist ever combined words and pictures the way that Saul Steinberg did. He was truly an original. When Steinberg died, art critic Robert Hughes wrote, "He had no equals. Now he has no successors." The critic and philosopher Harold Rosenberg noted with admiration,"there is only one of his kind."

© The Saul Steinberg Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

Steinberg dealt with the most immense and challenging issues of the human condition. New York Times art critic John Canaday wrote, "Steinberg is the great artist of the post World War II quarter-century and maybe, for all we know now, the whole latter half-century." But for all his depth and brilliance, Steinberg had a playful side that showed itself in simple little word pictures like these.

© The Saul Steinberg Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

These drawings reveal Steinberg's im…


For thirty years, William Steig did yeoman work drawing competent drawings of mildly amusing domestic scenes. He supported his family through the Great Depression making pleasant cartoons for the New Yorker. I was never impressed with his work during this phase.

However, beneath the surface Steig idolized the drawings of Pablo Picasso. And beginning in the 1960s-- that great decade of cultural liberation-- Steig abandoned his old style and began drawing in a much wilder, more intuitive style. Gone were his discipline and control. Gone were the predictable domestic scenes. In their place came drawings of nymphs and satyrs penned in a child-like scrawl, Victorian ladies with immense bottoms, knights wrestling with butterflies and all kinds of fanciful subjects portrayed with rich, exciting pen work.

This drawing is a little unusual for Steig during the 1960s-- many of his drawings of the period were drawn in just a few carefully chosen lines. One of the things I really like about this dra…


© The Saul Steinberg Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

Saul Steinberg was one of the greatest illustrators of all time. He was so damn smart you could warm your hands by the intellectual glow from his drawings. Yet, his brilliant content never overpowered his images. Art critic Robert Hughes wrote that Steinberg exhibited a form of "graphic intelligence that had not been imagined in American illustration before him."

This lovely drawing is not one of his more famous or elaborate images, but I selected it because it shows very simply how Steinberg's mind provides fresh insight into the most elemental ingredients of our world: as he scans the horizon line, he plays with the fact that water makes straight things crooked, then uses that to make crooked things straight (the evergreen, the lightning bolt) and ends with the coup de grace: the straight flag pole is now corrugated but the waving flag has become straightened!

Steinberg's art could never be contained by …