‘Love and Laughter,’ between the lines
Exhibit shows Steig’s delight in his craft

Artwork by William Steig, 1987

Untitled Drawing (Servant Brushing Off Woman), William Steig, 1987. Illustration for The New Yorker, October 15, 1987. Ink and watercolor on paper. ©1987 William Steig. All rights reserved.From the permanent collection of Norman Rockwell Museum, gift of Jeanne Steig.

By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / July 4, 2010

Originally published in The Boston Globe, Sunday, July 4, 2010

STOCKBRIDGE — When I was in my early 20s, living in Sydney and aspiring to write, my mother came home with an unusual present. She had found, at one of the auctions she liked to haunt, a set of several hundred New Yorker magazines from the mid-1950s to the mid-’80s. She got the whole lot for about $30.

What a find! I remember feeling giddy at the prospect of rummaging through them all, sniffing out literary nuggets by Updike, Nabokov, Salinger, Flanner, Malcolm —you name it. None of this stuff, of course, was available online in those days.

The funny thing is, I never got around to it. Instead of reading, I got waylaid by looking. As I organized these hundreds of issues into chronological order, I became obsessed not by their contents but by the cover illustrations. They seemed to me so fresh, so witty, so alive —and so unlike anything I was used to seeing, either in art galleries or in magazines, where the dull ubiquity of photography had long since usurped the formerly prestigious position of illustrations at all but a handful of publications.

A lot of the covers in my new stash were by William Steig. One of the magazine’s most illustrious illustrators (his example set the tone, I think, for many of the best illustrations and cartoons it has published), Steig had been providing The New Yorker with imagery since the summer of 1932 (less than a decade after the magazine itself began publishing). His covers, though they ranged widely in subject matter, mood, and degrees of detail and finish, were unmistakable: gauche, childlike outlines, often with a pen whose ink flowed unevenly; pale, floral colors; and above all, a tremendous freedom and freshness.

Looking at them, you never had a sense of a genius summoning up reserves of creative prowess in order to present something fine and memorable for a special occasion (a New Yorker cover!). Rather, the feeling was simply of “Why not this?”

A drawing of a cat, for instance, sitting in grass beneath a yellow sun. No shading or modeling, the cat’s face awkwardly squashed, the scale all out of whack —but a brilliant, indelible cover. Or a smiling, primly dressed couple standing on either side of a big vase of flowers. Or, for a Valentine’s Day issue, a tubby little Cupid in a tunic firing an arrow at a heart shape suspended above him.

There was no big gag, no clever message. Instead, a simple, earthy joy in drawing, in the properties of color, in the unfussy creation of imagery. Also, a deep affection both for natural, unspoiled beauty and for human weakness and venality.

Steig, who died in 2003, is the subject of the exhibition “William Steig: Love and Laughter,” now at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge. The show is sheer joy. It includes many examples of Steig’s work for The New Yorker, cover illustrations as well as cartoons. But it also presents examples of his many illustrations for children’s books (he was the creator of “Shrek!” as well as “Doctor De Soto,” “The Amazing Bone,” and “Abel’s Island”), work that took up more and more of his time as he got older, as well as a section devoted to the three-dimensional sculptures made by his fourth and final wife and creative collaborator, Jeanne Steig.

Steig was born in Brooklyn and grew up in the Bronx, the child of Polish-Jewish immigrants from Austria with strong socialist leanings. He attended three colleges, but never completed a degree. His first submission to The New Yorker — a drawing of a man crouched in a box, captioned “People are no damn good” that was never published —was in 1930.

His long association with the magazine was not free of tensions, especially during the long editorship of Harold Ross, whose tight control over the magazine’s tone and standards of propriety occasionally smothered Steig’s more passionate and pagan urgings. But under William Shawn, Ross’s successor, he and fellow illustrators such as Saul Steinberg were encouraged to express a deeper, more philosophical engagement with the world, an approach that increasingly gave rise to captionless cartoons and other purely visual meditations on love, nature, violence, and neurosis.

Like any gifted cartoonist, Steig could be devastatingly wry and scathingly satirical. With domestic drudgery, political folly, and artistic pretension, he had a field day. But he was just as often involved in creating imagery that functioned as a simple expression of belief, of feeling, of hope.

“I believe that people are basically good and beautiful, and that neurosis is the biggest obstacle to peace and happiness,” he wrote in the introduction to his 1950s collection “Dreams of Glory.” “In my symbolic drawings I try to make neurotic behavior more manifest. . . . I am essentially identified with nature’s point of view, as against civilization’s.”

He went on, in a passage John Updike described as “perhaps the most idealistic and thoughtful preface a cartoonist ever addressed to his public”: “I want you to know that I mean you well and that I work for you as well as for myself.”

Steig’s was not at all, then, your typical “dream of glory.” Glory, for him, was not about transcendence, about winning, but about a state of free-flowing acceptance and everyday delight.

His unfussy line, with its stop-start rhythms and flickering tones, perfectly expresses this earthier idea of joy. Disavowing the ideals of classicism — symmetry, proportion, and decorousness —it upholds instead the primacy of the fumbling, mortal, craving body and the groping mind.

His humor can be very black, but always seems forged around a premise of likely reprieve. The cartoon, for instance, that shows a married man leaning in with some aggression toward his wife, saying “All right I’m wrong, shall I kill myself?” is certainly dark, but the unspoken answer (his, if not hers) is surely “No.”

Actually, the funniest of Steig’s drawings always seem funny in different ways on different days —perhaps because they are so sensitively attuned to the flux and contingency of human relations.

© Copyright 2010 Globe Newspaper Company.