Life with Myself: A Personal Mythology
The recent donation of one hundred and eighteen works to the Biblioteca Nazionale Braidense by The Saul Steinberg Foundation spans almost the entirety of the artist's career, from the second half of the 1930s to the first half of the 1990s.
And with the library's holdings of the newspapers Bertoldo and Il Settebello a circle can be completed. In the representation of Steinberg's artistic evolution, a significant part of his production is often missed: the early witty cartoons that first introduced Steinberg to the then flourishing world of Italian satirical newspapers when he was still a 22-year-old architecture student at the Politecnico di Milano.
These drawings represent an overlooked yet fundamental keystone to introduce an artist who - born in Romania in 1914 and later to become one of the most important American draftsmen of the 20th century - in his eight Italian years (1933-1941) laid the foundations of his future vision. They act as the starting point, albeit an early one, of his unique ability to chart unexplored territories and to rely on humor to "conceal" the seriousness of certain topics, which he combined with an extraordinary graphic talent, acutely summarized in the magazine Domus in 1946 by his lifelong friend Aldo Buzzi: "Steinberg was born to draw like Fred Astaire was born to dance."
The variety of techniques and subjects in the collection now in the Biblioteca testifies to the different fields in which Steinberg habitually operated: from work made for art galleries to those destined for magazine reproduction; from collaborations with architects to more intimate and personal works. Throughout runs a certain ambiguity which he often delighted in and which always distinguished him as an artist. "The whole history of art influenced me: Egyptian paintings, latrine drawings, primitive and insane art, Seurat, children's drawings, embroidery, Paul Klee."
In addition (and one might almost say on top of everything) is a constant autobiographical reference that characterizes many of the works in the donation and helps us understand the nuances behind the rarefied image of Steinberg as an artist.
The first one that calls for attention is a drawing from the late 1980s in which Steinberg copies a period photograph wherein he appears as a child with other family members.
The copy is far from slavish, as such copies never are in his work: he chooses one of the figures - the maid in this case, recognizable by her bare feet - singles her out from the group, moves her from her original position and places her next to himself, eliminating the other figures. This also happens in other drawings based on this same photograph. In each one, Steinberg performs the same operation: he moves one or the other of the figures in the photo to his side. Memory is altered through the stroke of the pen, which is the only means to generate new visions or memories from the same snapshot.
Another tribute Steinberg pays to his Milanese past is central to two of the most famous works in the donation, both dated 1970: Milano 1938 and Via Ampere 1936, both published in his "Italy–1938" portfolio in the October 7, 1974 issue of The New Yorker. Again, in both cases, it is memory that guides Steinberg in his drawings of buildings - the Palazzo di Giustizia, or a corner of a certain neighborhood, the Città degli Studi - rather than factual architectural details. In this way, he reveals the nature of a structure in his experience.
He had already applied this same method in 1949, yet with greater humor, when he depicted the Venetian Arsenale only through its Athenian lions, which he deliberately enlarged in relation to the tiny people observing them, suggesting that a place is recognizable even when its architectural elements are not shown.
Italian landscapes and more generally European scenes also date to 1942, produced in Santo Domingo while Steinberg was waiting for his visa to the United States. These were later included in his first American exhibition "Drawings in Color by Steinberg. Paintings by Nivola" in April 1943. As a group, these drawings reveal a Steinberg who had not yet departed from familiar subject matter and a style still evocative of 20th - century Italian painting.
The Steinberg we see in these works is far from the man who "discovered" America, and it's moving to think of him - just arrived in the United States barely ten months before the exhibition opened - displaying works that ooze the sanguine tones of nostalgia for a country he painfully fled.
Moreover, worthy of mention among the works generously donated to the Biblioteca Nazionale Braidense is the drawing Hotel Room in Carpi. The drawing emerged from a trip that Steinberg took in 1951; he produced the final version that same year.
The drawing and the sketches from which the drawing is derived - the latter in sketchbooks now in Yale's Beinecke
Library - offer an interesting and rare insight into how Steinberg drew "from life". Such travel sketchbooks - common through the 1960s but increasingly rare thereafter- are where the lessons learned at the Politecnico are at their most visible, along with a more general passion for architectural drawing, perhaps inspired by Le Corbusier’s travel carnets. The details of what was around him - landscapes, plazas, fragments of streets, details of furniture, intimations of colors, notes on expenses - rarely transformed into finished drawings. But the trip to Carpi and perhaps the enchantment of place, was so imprinted in Steinberg's memory that when he returned home, he took a large drawing sheet and recomposed all the details. He even added the listing of the hotel's rates on the back of the room door - a detail only Steinberg would include.
He also wrote about it to his friend Aldo Buzzi, July 1, 1951: "From the train on which you continued your journey to Milan, I got off at Parma where I took a little train to Carpi, which is - as I expected - very beautiful, made for giants, a square as big as San Marco, complete with porticoes ad infinitum, cathedral, castle, Opera, not to mention the Albergo del Turco, room with painted ceiling, flag above the bed, the bed with Vesuvius painted on, tagliatelle, etc."
Such verbal descriptions reveal Steinberg's method and approach to the work of art as a search for the total representation of an experience of which infinite variations can be composed by making use of any thing, style, or technique.
His work can be understood even more profoundly if we consider that, whether out of impulse or intent, Steinberg never threw away anything, but kept all kinds of paper documents to reuse at the most appropriate moment. Fourteen years after the Carpi drawing, he retrieved the hotel receipt and placed it at the center of a new work, almost as a Cubist or Schwitters-style collage.
Different again is his way of composing from life (dal vero), when he depicts friends and relatives at his Long Island country home in the 1970s and 1980s. These are in colored pencil and were published at a later stage in a limited edition artist's book titled Dal Vero.
Steinberg's hand here is totally at ease, which is also why the works come through as sober and delicate in their beauty, all very similar to one another.
There are still many themes to investigate, many stories behind each work in the collection, but a deliberate choice was made in this catalogue to let the artist speak for himself.
In the search for a structure beyond mere chronology, a selection of Steinberg's texts came to our aid, some previously unpublished. They were held back by his editor Aldo Buzzi for publication at some later date and given to The Saul Steinberg Foundation in 2007. He described them as "a pile of writings in bulk, almost thrown off a truck, as their author says about certain American architecture [...]."
These texts were outtakes from transcriptions of the conversations that Buzzi had with Steinberg in the summer of 1974 and the autumn of 1977 that were ultimately published as Riflessi e ombre (Adelphi, 2001; English translation, Reflections and Shadows, Random House, 2002).
It seemed particularly appropriate to accompany the works now in the Braidense collection with a narrative journey more suggestive than explanatory of the hidden talents of Steinberg as a writer alongside the better-known Steinberg as an artist, avoiding all profondismi, as Roberto Calasso said when reviewing the drafts of the book in 1978. In its first finished state, the publication was supposed to be titled Life with Myself: what better title for an artist whose work has continuously traversed his own history to create a great autobiography?