At a celebration at UCLA of the career of Eugen Weber, the Romanian-born historian of France, I made the mistake of describing Eugen as an exile. In his response to the tributes paid him, Eugen corrected me, remarking that he had never considered himself an exile. “From the moment I attained consciousness,” he said, “I wanted to leave Romania. The place is a dump.”
Tristan Tzara (né Samuel Rosenstock), one of the founders of Dada, was a Romanian. Eugène Ionesco, perhaps the most famous Romanian artist of the last half of the 20th century, was a surrealist playwright prominently associated with the Theater of the Absurd. E. M. Cioran, the Romanian aphorist, wrote: “An acute sense of absurdity makes the merest action unlikely, indeed impossible. Lucky those who lack such a thing! Providence has indeed looked out for them.” Dada, surrealism, absurdity—Romania seems to have encouraged such responses on the part of its writers and artists.
Another Romanian, Saul Steinberg (1914-1999), the cartoonist, illustrator, and artist, called the country of his birth “a sewer.” Feeling stymied by Romanian anti-Semitism, well on the increase in the late 1920s with the advent of the fascist Iron Guard (for whom the Nazis were moving all too slowly), in his adolescence Steinberg escaped, going off to Milan to study architecture. (A fine education, he averred, for everything but the practice of architecture.) He did not escape Cioran’s curse of an acute sense of absurdity. If there are mixed blessings, so, too, may curses be mixed. Absurdity was Steinberg’s stock in trade, his manner of looking at the world. Without it, he was out of business; with it, however, happiness was always out of his reach.
Outwardly, Saul Steinberg’s was an immensely successful life. And this success did not come only after great travail. He drew, and the world was eager to have him continue to do so. On the artistic front, warm welcome met him all of his days. Money, fame, honors fell into his lap. “After nearly forty years of looking at his work,” said William Shawn, then editor of the New Yorker, “I am still dazzled and astounded by it. His playfulness and elegance are of a sublime order.”
While a student in Milan, Steinberg published cartoons in Italian satirical journals. When Mussolini began rounding up Jews, he was briefly interned in an Italian concentration camp, which, by his own account, was more a disorganized detention depot. With the help of relatives and friends, he won his freedom and made his way to Portugal. Because American immigration quotas for Romanians were filled, he had to spend a year awaiting a visa in the Dominican Republic. While there, he published drawings in the New Yorker, which was to prove a lifelong and lucrative connection. Over the years he provided the magazine with nearly 90 covers and hundreds of drawings.
Soon after his arrival in New York in 1942, Steinberg went to work for the graphics division of the Office of War Information. Once naturalized as an American citizen, he was immediately commissioned as an ensign in the Navy. He served in China, North Africa, India, and Rome, illustrating instructional manuals and turning out drawings used as propaganda dropped behind enemy lines. During this period, he continued to contribute to the New Yorker, where he had a “first-look” contract giving the magazine initial refusal rights on all his drawings.
In his early days in New York, Steinberg met Hedda Sterne, a Romanian emigré, an abstract painter, and a woman of intelligence, beauty, and sympathetic understanding. She invited him to lunch, and, in her words, “he stayed six weeks.” They married, though Steinberg persistently betrayed her through adultery, and they eventually separated. But they never divorced. She remained someone he called on in times of confusion, anxiety, and depression, and these times were neither few nor far between.
A Jew in Romania, then a Romanian in America, Saul Steinberg was an outsider by fate but also by choice, forced to think in a language to which he was not born. He saw the world in the coolly detached way of an artist. This allowed him to capture it in his drawings in its illogicality, its unconscious comedy, its silly pretensions. In Steinberg’s drawings the figure 5 makes love to a question mark, a Don Quixote-like figure attacks a pineapple, the earth is seen in parochial diminishment when viewed from Ninth Avenue in Manhattan.
“I don’t quite belong in the art, cartoon, or magazine world,” Steinberg claimed, “so the art world doesn’t quite know where to place me.” Was he major or minor, a high- or middlebrow figure, a mere cartoonist and illustrator or a major artist? Even now, 14 years after his death, this question has yet to be resolved.