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Steinberg, Saul


STEINBERG, SAUL (1914–1999), U.S. artist and cartoonist. Born near Bucharest, Romania, Steinberg studied sociology and psychology at the University of Bucharest but moved to Italy and received a doctoral degree in architecture from the Reggio Politecnico in Milan in 1940. There, he began his career as an artist, founding a magazine with Giovanni Guareschi, an Italian novelist, and began publishing his drawings. His visual language was a thin sharp line that was always remarking on its own existence. Often his drawings poked fun at the art of drawing, the artist growing out of his own pen and winding up as a square, or becoming entangled in his own fancies, or unable to break out of a never-ending spiral. His art also played on the theme of emigration and the bureaucratic guises of identity: fingerprints, passports, signatures. As a foreign Jew living in Milan under a Fascist regime that was growing more antisemitic, he was awarded his diploma by Victor Emmanuel iii, King of Italy, King of Albania, and Emperor of Ethiopia, identified as "of the Jewish race." In 1941, he fled to the United States using what he described as a "slightly fake" passport, one he stamped with his own rubber stamp. It got him to neutral Portugal and then to Ellis Island, from where he was deported to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, because the tiny quota of Romanians was already filled. He sent some cartoons to The New Yorker, hoping the magazine would support his entry into the United States. His first New Yorker drawing appeared on October 25, 1941, an artist's playful rendition of a reverse centaur, one with a man's rear end and a horse's head. Steinberg arrived in the United States the following year. In 1943 Steinberg had his first American one-man show. On the same day that he became a United States citizen, he was given an ensign's commission in the Navy. He was assigned to teach Chinese guerillas how to blow up bridges, and for a year flew the mountainous route known as the Hump from China to India, making sure the explosives reached their destinations. He was then sent to North Africa to draw cartoons that would inspire anti-Nazi resistance inside Germany. The New Yorker published Steinberg's visual reports from Asia, North Africa, and Europe, and satiric drawings of Nazis. In one, "Benito and Adolf – Aryan Dancers," Mussolini and Hitler are wrestling half naked. His wartime work was published in All in Line (1945), the first of many collections of his drawings. In 1946, the year Steinberg was discharged from the Navy, he won his first recognition as a serious artist, when his work was included in "Fourteen Americans" at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. After the war his style changed, becoming more abstract, philosophic, and symbolic. In the 1950s he devised a roster of characters: cats, sphinxes, and empty-looking men and women, then crocodiles, his emblem for primitive political society, horses, and knights. By the 1960s his work was filled with geometrical forms, baroque comic-strip balloons, letters of the alphabet, numbers, and punctuation marks. In the late 1960s and 1970s he did architectural fantasies, watercolor landscapes, and savage pictures of New York street life that indicated a pessimism about urban life. His art was shown at several important venues: Galerie Maeght in Paris (1953) and the Sidney Janis Gallery (1973) in New York, and he had a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art (1978). For The New Yorker, he produced 85 covers and 642 drawings. But none was more famous than the New Yorker's conception of the world, which appeared on March 29, 1976, and shows a shortsighted view of the rest of the world, in which everything in the landscape recedes according to its cultural distance from Manhattan. The idea was copied in knockoffs made for London, Paris, Rome, Venice, and just about every other city. Steinberg, as he lamented late in life, was known as "the man who did that poster." More than once Steinberg was photographed with one of his paper-bag masks over his face. That, he once said, is what people do in America, "manufacture a mask of happiness for themselves."

[Stewart Kampel (2nd ed.)]

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