Reflections and Shadowsby Saul Steinberg, Aldo Buzzi
We all grew up in Saul Steinberg’s America, a place he envisioned for us in his drawings and cartoons for The New Yorker—none more famous than his iconic image of a New Yorker’s view of the world. In this eccentric and unpredictable memoir, one of the twentieth century’s most intellectually nimble artists shares his view of the world, of… See more details below
We all grew up in Saul Steinberg’s America, a place he envisioned for us in his drawings and cartoons for The New Yorker—none more famous than his iconic image of a New Yorker’s view of the world. In this eccentric and unpredictable memoir, one of the twentieth century’s most intellectually nimble artists shares his view of the world, of America and his place in it.
A Romanian by birth, restless by inclination, Steinberg lived a peripatetic existence. In Reflections and Shadows, he introduces us to his family—his uncle Moritz, a sign painter, and his father (also Moritz), a bookbinder whose small factory produced cardboard boxes and ribbons for funeral wreaths. He tells us how he dodged the police in fascist Italy in 1940 and how he came to America, where he became a citizen, an officer in the U.S. Navy, and the foremost visionary satirist of his time.
No one has depicted America with all its strengths and foibles more enduringly than Saul Steinberg. In this playful meditation, based on a series of interviews with Aldo Buzzi that has never before been published in English, and interwoven with more than a dozen drawings, Steinberg delivers a laconic hymn to America: its baseball, its diners, and its exhibitionism. “It is stinginess,” Steinberg writes, speaking of his art and method, “that holds us back.” But he had none of that: the personality that emerges from these pages is capacious, acutely discriminating, full of serendipitous curiosities, and consistently engaging.
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Uncles and aunts.
A family photograph.
I didn't stay long enough to enjoy the "good
life" in Romania, as a man of thirty, forty, or fifty, a successful man. There were no special pastimes for young people. I had no rights, and went to high school wearing a name plate with a number, like an automobile. And above all, as long as you had no money, you couldn't enjoy the dreadful freedoms of Romania, which were invariably abuses, to lead the life of the sort of man who, if he has money, can always find people to buy. My childhood, my adolescence in Romania were the equivalent of being a black in the state of Mississippi.
There were girls who came down from the mountains to work as servants, and they were treated like savages from the jungle, like slaves; they had almost no rights and immediately became the prey of the masters and sons of the house, of the neighbors. They came from villages as yet untouched by civilization, villages of Tatars and Visigoths, and they arrived in the confusion of a city full of every kind of scoundrel; they were flesh for the whorehouses, and often committed suicide, even for absurd reasons, such as having been unfairly scolded by their mistress or accused of stealing. They doused themselves with kerosene and lit a match.
There was plenty of kerosene, which was used in oil lamps. Peddlers went along the street with two drums of oil, yelling, "Gase, gase." Women who kept company with a gasàr always smelled of kerosene, and this made other men avoid them.
Every so often certain smells that I haven't smelled since I was a child come back to me-not to my nose, like an actual smell, but to the nose's brain. Vague smells, and at the same time specific ones: the smell of autumn; of certain stores; the smell of early winter, when the weather starts to get cold: the first fire in the house, with the lamp lit at five in the afternoon. The metal stove had a special smell when lit for the first time, since the surface had been greased to keep it from rusting. And there was the smell of the oil lamp.
I like smelling that odor again, but it can't be called up at will. Still, it sometimes happens that all of a sudden, for some mysterious reason, the memory of that smell comes back to me.
Nothing that has been deposited in the memory is lost. Memory is a computer that all one's life goes on accumulating data which are not always used, since man is often like an ocean liner that sets sail with only a single cabin occupied. We ought to be able to use this huge accumulation of data continually, keep it functioning, combine and multiply its elements and reintroduce them into the circuit of our thoughts. So it happens with the return of these smells, deposited many years ago in the memory and now revived. Maybe I'll have the good fortune to find again other things that now seem forgotten. I'd like to be able to go back and see all the things that at the time I stored away without perceiving them, follow myself at the age of ten and judge, with the mind of today, the conditions under which I lived: discovering what, at that time, had been deposited in the computer without my knowing it.
I'm very much interested in the time just before my birth, and I'm sorry not to have seen it. I have the feeling that by making a mental effort I might be able to see it. It's a time so close to me that I feel as though I know it quite well, and I'm moved whenever I think of it. Maybe it's because my parents were young and didn't know each other.
I grew up without toys. My father was a bookbinder; later he set up a small factory for cardboard boxes, with lots of colored paper and a great supply of glue. The factory had the smell of an artist's studio, of collages, as well as the smell of the ink used on large wooden letters to print the ribbons of funeral wreaths. The female employees worked skillfully and with manual dexterity to assemble and glue boxes of various sizes, some of them tiny-even lipstick holders (plastic hadn't yet been invented), little cardboard cylinders that could be opened and closed and which were covered with colored paper and trimmed with gold and silver. Women and girls of all ages and sizes worked amid much laughter and constant chatter. On Saturday, payday, a group of men waited for them outside the factory: the boyfriends or perhaps the pimps of the older girls, and the fathers of the little ones, who took the money and immediately rushed off to get drunk.
The busiest time was at Passover, when my father managed to obtain major orders for boxes to hold unleavened bread. Before being sent to the bakeries-where the unleavened bread was made under rabbinical supervision-these boxes, which were rather large, were stacked up in big piles that took on the appearance of fantastic cardboard buildings. The factory also produced boxes for chocolates, bonbons, and sugar-coated almonds-deluxe boxes on whose glossy covers was an artistic reproduction in chromolithography, the imitation or reproduction of an oil painting.
At home we had large sets of reproductions of the most popular works of art, from the Renaissance to the modern art of that time. Certain Madonnas by minor Renaissance painters managed to give a perfect image of the popular Christianity, or rather of the cakes' Christianity, what the French call bondieuserie. Millet was ideal for chocolate boxes because he combined the classicism of the Renaissance with socialism, which
at that time was not only popular but also virginal (no one yet knew of the horrors that might come, and
did come). And then there was Raphael: the Dresden Madonna; and the thinking angel, with his elbow propped on a cloud. Many of these images I was seeing for the first time, without knowing they were art, painting. Later, I ran across them again in art books and recognized them.
Another teacher, for me, was the family album. There were the pictures of relatives-uncles and aunts, cousins, grandparents, great-grandparents-from the earliest ones, taken by excellent photographers still inspired by the paintings of Delacroix and Ingres, down to the first attempts at horrible family photos that we did ourselves, photos in which everyone had a Hitler-like mustache, produced by the shadow of the nose.
These photographs were my first models. Even today I'm captivated when I see a person who, by suddenly freezing into immobility, seems like a photograph of himself and takes on a folk-art look. Photography has had a continuing effect on art. A painter such as Bacon clearly derives from the Polaroid, but at the same time it's also true that art precedes technique, just as the smell precedes the cake. Bucharest, in the days of my youth, was a peculiar city, an enfant-prodige city, where the avant-garde cohabited with primitivism, as in certain places where two or three rivers converge and mingle, where there is something essential that has nothing to do with the ordinary character of the place, something that emerges at a particular moment when cultures, the forces of south, north, east, and west come together and give birth to a tornado, a typhoon, a waterspout, or if you like, an eddy-Dada.
Of my many uncles, actual ones or not, two were sign painters and for me they were the most interesting because they dealt with things that involved painting. My uncle Moritz limited himself to painting large inscriptions on canvas mounted on frames or on canvas banners to be strung above the street on the occasion of sales, festivals, political rallies-cheap stuff, for stores that wouldn't last longer than the canvas sign. Other signs were painted directly on the wall. For these jobs my uncle sent one of his employees; it was beneath his dignity to go in person and paint a sign on a wall, which was a mark of poverty besides. Signs painted in color on glass windows were another matter. That required a specialist, and it was my uncle himself who went to do the job. He painted the letters from the inside, in reverse.
Uncle Moritz's brother Josef not only did the letters but also painted the subject. The shopkeepers thought it over for months before hitting on the right idea for their store signs: the golden cannon, or the sea eagle with a fish in its claws, images intended to help the illiterate peasants. Here, too, as in everything else in Romania at that time, one felt the influence of Paris, where the signs for bakeries, dairies, and pastry shops had to have, almost always on a black background, pictures in addition to letters: oval landscapes, a shepherdess, scenes of happiness and nobility, artistic stereotypes that were very important to me then, and still are. (The Russians, so as not to whet people's appetites, have reduced their store signs to a minimum. If it's really necessary to show that a store sells shoes, they barely sketch the outline of a shoe, and the rest is written, in a tiny space.)
On mirrors or plate glass, in gold on a black background, my "uncle" Josef painted a Romania that tried to resemble the court of Versailles, with happy views of peasants in national costume, all highly suited to pastry shops, restaurants, and other such places. Miniaturist craftsmen worked with small brushes in his studio, a setting saturated with the pungent odor of turpentine. (Much of Magritte derives from sign painting, especially when he has to depict a human figure. The whole Surrealist school tries to show man as a cliché, the standard figure copied on signs from the fashion journals of the day.)
Uncle Moritz worked outdoors, in one of those huge courtyards inside a block of houses that are found in all Balkan countries. Carpenters, cobblers, and mattress makers worked there, any artisan who needed space; there were many cafés, of course, and a restaurant, the latter busy only in the evening. Tables were scattered more or less everywhere, acres of chairs and little tables between which waiters passed quickly with large trays; also sellers of sweets, with baskets on their heads or on their arms, peddlers of dirty postcards, cheap books, stamps, newspapers; and gypsies who either read palms or were tinkers or thieves. In the middle of it all was Uncle Moritz, rapidly painting his signs, with a big stick to keep his hand steady. A crowd of children and grown-ups constantly gathered to watch him work.
Two of my uncles had shops where they sold stationery and books, mostly school texts and popular works: adventure stories with bandits; the story of Olympias, mother of Alexander the Great, with the horse Bucephalus; and the Thousand and One Nights, with those Oriental women wearing nothing but a few veils. But most of their business was in school materials: pencils, erasers, and ink-purple and blue, both of which made indelible spots on your hands, got under your fingernails, and stayed there all year. And ink pots guaranteed not to tip over, sponges for slates, notebooks with ruled pages for penmanship or graph paper for mathematics, blue paper to cover books, labels on which to write your name, surname, class, and the name of your school. At Christmastime, glass tree ornaments arrived from Germany, marvelous, brightly colored metal toys from Nuremberg, and I was sent to the store to help my uncle, partly to sell, partly to keep an eye on the customers, almost all of whom were thieves.
Two other uncles had started out as watchmakers, then little by little had expanded their business. One had also become a jeweler. There was an odor in his store that I can still smell with pleasure when-as seldom happens now-I pass by a watchmaker's: the odor of watchmaker's oil. My uncle worked with a magnifying lens in his eye, putting all these tiny pieces in place with his tweezers. He didn't much like for me to stand there watching. I had to be careful not to get too close and to hold my breath-otherwise the little springs flew off.
The other uncle had combined his watches with musical instruments, as well as gramophones, phonograph records, and various other merchandise. In his shop window was an automaton: a clown that moved its head and eyes and lured the peasants arriving from the country and the mountains at the central railway station nearby. The neighborhood was full of whores, poor peasant women still in shabby dresses, almost all of them barefoot. They lived in squalid tenements with balconies, precursors of the motels here, which have also become whorehouses. A latrine in common for everyone, bucketfuls of water that rained down from on high without warning, constant shouting, quarreling, brawls. At home this same uncle kept a large collection of kitsch objects: shiny drawings on glass of half-naked women, very vulgar-who knows where he found them.
My last uncle's profession was not especially important, but it was wonderful to watch him at it: he was a croupier. He spoke French and worked in the Royal Casino in Sinaia. We once went to see him, and he got us in for free.
My mother had five sisters. The eldest, the most beautiful and most admired, was Sofi, who had married Moritz Grinberg, the sign painter.
My mother, Rosa, was the second sister. Her husband was also named Moritz. To distinguish the two Moritzes, one was called Sofi's Moritz, Moritz a lu Sofi, and the other, my father, was Moritz a lu Rosa.
Then came Aneta, the wife of the croupier, Micu Cohen. Micu means "little." No one knew what his real name was. He was one of those men who are always called by a nickname, lucky men pampered even by people who don't know them. I, on the other hand, ever since I was a child have had a solemn name: Saul. It would have been undignified to apply the diminutive, Saulica, to the name of the king of the Israelites.
The next was Pesa. Her husband, Jack Kramer, owned the store for watches and musical instruments, and the automaton. There was another uncle, Jacques, whose name was actually Isac Jacobson and who had changed his name when he got married for the second time. He was my mother's brother, feared and adored by the six sisters as the oldest, the richest, and the most distinguished. (Another brother was far away, in America, and still another had died young, perhaps a suicide.) Uncle Isaac had a fine house with servants, and in the summer went to Baden-Baden and Marienbad. As a child I had to kiss his hand and address him by the formal "you."
The fifth was Sali, who had married the bookseller Simon Marcovic. "Sali" is an imitation of the American "Sally." Maybe her real name was Sarah.
Finally the youngest of the sisters, Ana, the least good-looking and also the least esteemed. She had married Uncle Adolf, the other bookseller, a fat, lame man.
Of the six sisters, the only one still alive is Aunt Sali, who lives in Jerusalem.
Meet the Author
Born on June 15, 1914, in Romania, Saul Steinberg studied philosophy and literature at the University of Bucharest and architecture in Milan, where he published cartoons from 1936 to 1939. He fled to America in 1940 and joined the navy. After the war he settled down in New York and became an internationally celebrated artist, contributing some of his best work for more than fifty years to The New Yorker. His previous books include All in Line, The Passport, The Labyrinth, The Inspector, and The Discovery of America. Steinberg elevated the graphic language of the cartoon to the realm of fine art and came to be recognized as one of the most original artists of his time. He died in 1999.
Aldo Buzzi was trained as an architect in Milan. He worked in the Italian cinema for many years and then as a publisher. He is the author of Journey to the Land of the Flies and A Weakness for Almost Everything.
John Shepley’s translation of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Roman Nights and Other Stories won the first Italo Calvino Translation Award in 1987. He is currently working on a translation of Roberto Calasso.
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