Illustrative Jews

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New York.jpgIn a nice obituary appreciation in today’s NYT, Michael Kimmelman calls the New York Review’s fabled illustrator David Levine “one of the great artists of the last half-century,” and then asks:

But how so one of the great artists? Every great artist inhabits a
genre, and remakes it. Saul Steinberg reinvented the gag cartoon, Jules Feiffer the comic strip, Herblock the political cartoon. Mr. Levine, by
insisting on soul-searching gravity, did the same for caricatures even
while remaining funny most of the time.

I’m not sure I’d call Herblock–WaPo’s longtime editorial cartoonist–a great artist, but it’s striking that each of these pillars of illustrative art was (or is) Jewish. And one could add to the list Al Hirschfeld, who made theatrical drawing into an art form of its own; Art Spiegelman, who fashioned countercultural cartooning into the serious graphic novel; and Maurice Sendak, who created a new world out of children’s book illustration. Jews all, and all but Herblock New York Jews for most of their working lives.

As the center of the nation’s publishing trade beginning in the early 19th century, New York has long since afforded aspiring artists more opportunities to sell their wares than any other city in the country. And in the mid-twentieth century, it became the center of the international art world too. And, of course, New York was where the Jews were. Still, that doesn’t quite explain their ascendancy in these related fields of illustration.

“It helped that Mr. Levine spent a lifetime drawing live models,” Kimmelman writes. “And it
also mattered that he read closely the articles he was illustrating.” Perhaps it was the opportunity to marry the pictorial
to the verbal that made the difference for all these sons of the people
of the Book.