DemosNews: William Steig Show at the Jewish Museum, New York
William Steig Show at the Jewish Museum, New York
By: Anita Spertus

Bill Steig. Son of Socialist Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Father a housepainter, and Sunday artist, mother a seamstress. The kids grew up in the Bronx, playing on the streets and stoops and parks with their cronies in the rich stew of neighborhood. When his dad lost everything in the Crash of 1929, Bill had to help support the family. He began drawing cartoons and selling them to the New Yorker, to Look, to Collier’s, to whomever would buy them. Magazines were eager to distract the populace with laughter during those hard times.

His big heart and psychological insight became a steady at the New Yorker for more than 70 years—1600 cartoons, 120+ covers! He explored the human condition from every angle, always sympathetically. Before his day, a quipster would provide the cartoon punch line for an artist to draw. Steig came in with the whole—the joke, the wry thinking out loud, the bewilderment, eventually no caption at all. Favorite series of characters, or ones too personal or pointed for the magazine, emerged as books and exhibitions. When he was already in his sixties, Steig’s inventive verve took on a new direction. He rolled out one marvelous children’s picture book after another until the end of his life several years ago. He would have been one hundred years old this month.

In celebration, the Jewish Museum in Manhattan has mounted an exuberant exhibition that brings to life the full breadth of his background and oeuvre. It begins with the stream of doodled figures that spilled constantly from his pen. There are line drawings of his family that are multi-sensual and layered: his Sunday artist dad leans forward from an overstuffed chair to add the finishing roundness to a nude’s bottom, while puffing contentedly on his pipe and listening to the radio; a beautiful dream tableau shows his grandmother fluttering down through the air like an angel to bring the succor of chicken soup to his dad imprisoned for activism in Old World Lvov. There is a highly charged scene, captioned “Mom and Pop Never Quarreled in Front of the Children,” of two terrified, miserable children staring straight at us, as their elders bellow at one another just beyond the open door behind.

Groups of special characters populate his drawings. A beloved series “Small Fry” from the 30’s to early 50’s remembers the gaggle of kids from his youth, full of spunk and dreams, pranks and good will—laughing at a snob, nonchalantly tossing a snowball into a baby carriage, swaggering up to bat. Kids fancying themselves as heroes gather in the series “Dreams of Glory”—a tyke dashing forward to save his parents from a thief by pinning him to the wall with hurled knives, a comedian on TV (the kid himself) making the home audience (his parents and cronies) laugh till tears run down their cheeks, or, dressed as a cowboy, the kid bursting into Hitler’s office with revolvers drawn. Steig remembered his childhood with great nostalgia and warmth, and struck a chord with generations of readers who recognized and cherished theirs too.

His characters, whether downtrodden or swank, tangled in love or true, deeply melancholic or impish, always act and speak from the heart. Two convicts from the 30’s in cell bunks commiserate: “My youngest is a terror, We can’t do a thing with ‘im.” A fat society lady in low cut gown, huge grin on her face, leans forward clutching the telephone close, and says “Oh you dirty little liar!” A lance-bearing knight on horseback and a clown on a donkey ride off in opposite directions at the sides of the page.

Lovers in predicaments abound. A large prowed matron pushes her little cigar-smoking husband in a baby carriage. An old couple grapple at each others’ throats as dinner guests arrive at the door, venturing “Have we arrived too early?” Two old human lovebirds nest in a tree.

The later part of the show erupts into Steig’s lovely, color washed world of children’s picture books. Drawing from the same vat of early memories, fears and delights, and longing for family and love, he now speaks directly to kids. Sylvester, hidden right under his parents’ nose by a Magic Pebble, witnesses all their searching, his longing and theirs, then pops out of the spell and into their arms at a picnic as they say aloud that they love and miss him. Dominic the dog launches out to do good in the world, help the elderly, subdue the rascals, all with contagious charm and fully fleshed humanism. Mouse dentist Dr. Desoto and his wife, displaying an almost Buddhist kindness and empathy, relieve a dangerous fox of pain (even as we hear him muse aloud while unconscious whether it would be rude to gobble them up after they finish!) Spinky Sulks addresses a classic kid predicament with tender resolve. The alphabet books CDB and CDC allow a kid to hear through his eyes, with captions like I N-V U to be read aloud accompanied by an appropriate drawing.

Often Steig teases with reverse postures, which tickles kids enormously. The contrarian monsters of Rotten Island delight in ugliness and mean behavior, but really the kid knows that love and beauty are right. Shrek’s parents kick him goodbye, but kids immediately intuit that he means kiss him goodbye. Shrek himself shines infinitely saucier in spirit, form and tongue in Steig’s original than in Dream Works’ smoothed down movie form. Such language too! It will ring in your ears and your children’s ears for years: Shrek wooing the hideous princess, “Oh, ghastly you, with lips of blue…your rosy wens.. thrill me….” And the drawings! Great zigzags electrify the scene as the two hideous lovers spy one another across the illustrative page. An undulating flurry of fun house mirrors temporarily terrifies Shrek with myriad reflections of his ugly mug.

It’s a crime to try to verbalize these favorites without the tenderness, wry take, mischievous line, and sunny color of his drawings. For that you must come see the show (it will travel to San Francisco too next summer ), enjoy the juicy catalogue, let your eye and reader’s voice relish his books, and flap happily though the old New Yorkers piled on your shelf.

Bring your children to the show too. All of them know and love Mr. Shrek, but they’re in for a great treat to meet Steig’s other characters, and to see that he knew all about adults too. A big cozy enclave, like a page from his picture book, is set aside for them, complete with floppy chairs, a cheerful mock fireplace, and piles of the author’s books to snuggle down with and read.

P.S. Ah!-- months later, a chance to see many of the favorites I described in this article: click on the New York Times link below for the slide show that accompanies Edward Rothstein's March 3 review of the show.

© 2024 Anita Spertus of DemosNews

November 11, 2007 at 8:05pm
DemosRating: 5
Hits: 6502

Genre: Arts (Reviews)
Type: Critical
Tags: cartoons, New, Yorker, Shrek, exhibition, review


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