The Brooding Hand
I am among the few who continue to draw after childhood is ended, continuing and perfecting childhood drawing - without the traditional interruption of academic training.
— Saul Steinberg
Like his contemporaries Alexander Calder and Bruno Munari, Saul Steinberg - despite the international reputation gained for his enchanting New Yorker covers and inside art - has never received the recognition he deserves as an extraordinary artist in a wide range of media. Like his famous contemporaries, he has been "button-holed" as an illustrator or cartoonist, as Munari was "pigeon-holed" as a designer and Calder a sculptor for children. In all three cases, the reality is far more complicated, and the output defies easy definition.
In addition to magazine publications, Steinberg produced advertising art, textiles, stage sets, murals, and art for galleries and exhibitions worldwide. This many-leveled output made his work difficult to situate within the canons of postwar art history.
Steinberg himself said: "I don't quite belong to the art, cartoon or magazine world, so the art world doesn't quite know where to place me."
Saul Steinberg was born in Romania to a family of Jewish descent. In 1933, he enrolled at the Politecnico di Milano to study architecture; he received his degree in 1940. In 1936, he began contributing cartoons to the humour newspaper Bertoldo. A satirical newspaper, Marc'Aurelio, was printed in Rome beginning in 1931, and was a great success, so in 1935 Angelo Rizzoli called on Giovanni Mosca and Vittorio Metz to create a competitor, and the newspaper's first issue appeared on July 14, 1936. Bertoldo immediately made a name for itself with its innovative style, non-conformism, and a certain lightness that contrasted with the dense style of the newspapers of the time. In contrast to explicit political satire against Fascism, the authors of Bertoldo generally tried to keep out of politics.
The title quickly became very influential in 1930s Italy and did not escape the attention of Mussolini and the Fascist regime. In 1938 the racial laws forced Steinberg, a Jew, to start seeking refuge in another country. Bertoldo persevered, but publication ceased for good following the Allied bombing of the newspaper's Milanese headquarters in 1943.
Attempts to resurrect Bertoldo as a pro-Nazi propaganda newspaper failed because Angelo Rizzoli refused to collaborate with the Nazi-Fascists of Mussolini's German puppet state, the Repubblica di Salò. In 1941, Steinberg fled to the Dominican Republic, where he spent a year awaiting a US visa. By then, his drawings had appeared in several US periodicals; his first contribution to The New Yorker was published in October 1941 and Steinberg arrived in New York City in July 1942.
After World War II, Steinberg was included in the critically acclaimed "Fourteen Americans" show at the Museum of Modern Art, then under the visionary leadership of Alfred Barr, organized by the influential curator Dorothy C. Miller, and went on to have more than 80 one-artist shows in galleries and museums throughout the US, Europe, and South America.
Central to Steinberg's work was the line, and some of his most impressive works, including the four leporelli made for the 10th Triennale in Milan in 1954, recall Paul Klee’s dictum at the beginning of his lesson book for the Bauhaus, "A drawing is simply a line going for a walk." Steinberg's lines went for more than walks - they flew, they soared, they furrowed and they fled. His lines were deeply communicative, whether they were capturing the inscrutable glare of Van Gogh or the melting smile of a young lady reclining on a divan. Taken as a whole, Steinberg's output is remarkable in its variety, yet still conveys a coherent and engaging artistic vision.
The generous donation of Saul Steinberg's works to the Biblioteca Nazionale Braidense is one of the largest in the Foundation's history. But why Milan? Why the library? One part of the answer is mere serendipity. While preparing the Steinberg exhibition at the Triennale di Milano (October 15, 2021 – May 1, 2022), the Steinberg scholar Francesca Pellicciari discussed with Patterson Sims, managing director of the Saul Steinberg Foundation, the possibility of donating works specifically related to Steinberg's Italian experience to a major Italian cultural institution. The obvious candidate was the Pinacoteca di Brera, one of the country's leading art museums. Since 2014, following a series of radical reforms to Italy's cultural sector, the Pinacoteca had been tasked with managing the adjacent national library, and the new Director General was made responsible for both institutions. Quite naturally this created frictions and anxiety, but also created new opportunities for both institutions. Both institutions are exceptional, as both were born out of the Milanese Enlightenment and the French Revolution.
The Biblioteca was created by the enlightened Empress Maria Teresa Habsburg in 1786, and the Pinacoteca had been created by Napoleon, who saw it as the "Louvre of Italy", by which he meant an institution dedicated to public education. In 1938, the director of the Pinacoteca, Ettore Modigliani, was fired two weeks before his retirement as a consequence of the same racial laws that forced Steinberg to flee Italy. Modigliani's successor and protégée, Fernanda Wittgens, was arrested and jailed in 1944 for helping Jews flee to Switzerland after the Nazi takeover of Italy in 1943. When it was decided to locate the generous donation of Steinberg's work in the Biblioteca, rather than in the museum's drawings collection, the strong links of Steinberg to Milan and in particular to Bertoldo played a deciding role.
In the Biblioteca, Steinberg's works could be placed in the context of the vital and dynamic prewar Milanese literary world, a world in which the Biblioteca featured strongly.
In some ways, however, the distinction is an artificial one, as the two institutions are now one, and they share - along with the rest of the institutions in the Palazzo di Brera - a common history. This exhibition is a contribution that explores this common history, a history which connects artists and books, passions and places, people and ideas.