It doesn’t seem real.

After four years of work, what at first looked like a confusing sequence of rooms has become a real book-building.

The Great Living Museum of the Imagination: A Guide to the Exploration of Literary Architecture, published by Il Saggiatore, comes out Friday, November 25.

Saul Steinberg: the legacy of a genius

by Matteo Pericoli

 
Published in the March 2022 issue of L’Indice dei libri del mese

Saul Steinberg 1978. Photo by Evelyn Hofer

One of the greatest challenges we encounter when trying to interpret Saul Steinberg’s work is trying to find the right angle of approach. The typical mistake we often make is trying to classify him: Is he an illustrator? No, or maybe yes; Is he a cartoonist? Sure! No, of course not; A brilliant draftsman? Yes, a draftsman for sure, or maybe not? Is he perhaps more simply, or more generically, an “artist”? Well, that’s a given. However, as we carefully approach the complex figure of Saul Steinberg it feels as if not even the all-encompassing word “artist” is accurate enough. He was not just an artist; he was something more. But what?

Steinberg was born into a Jewish family in Romania in 1914. He lived in Bucharest until 1933 when he moved to Milan, Italy, where he studied architecture at the Regio Politecnico. Within a few years he began to publish drawings in various Italian magazines and enjoy a certain success. Yet, his situation got complicated by the racial laws, so much so that as soon as Italy entered the war he decided to immigrate to the United States. However, he was arrested before he could leave and spent a period of several months of internment in Abruzzo. In the summer of 1942 he finally managed to arrive in New York.

Steinberg’s work at that point was already well-known in the United States. In fact, thanks to several acquaintances, in the period right before entering the country he had already published many drawings in various American magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar and Life. Upon his arrival in New York, Steinberg started practically immediately to collaborate with The New Yorker magazine, contributing covers, illustrations, drawings, cartoons and so on — something he would continue to do, with exceptional and perhaps unparalleled success and freedom, for the rest of his life.

Many clues to the difficulties in describing him are found in quotes from Steinberg himself, such as: “I was born in a complicated country, one had to pave one’s own’s way through several contradictory truths, a magnificent school for a novelist. The only characters I respected, the only ones I could converse with, were characters from novels. I believed that books were of divine origin, and when I realized that they were written by ordinary people (who were therefore unknown before they became famous), I was so impressed that I said to myself, ‘Then I can do it too!’” (Riga, p. 111)

However, his conflictual relationship with Romania, the “infernal homeland” (Lettere a Aldo Buzzi, p. 278), his betrayal by Italy and its racial laws, and his being an immigrant, albeit a naturalized one, in the United States meant that Steinberg lacked a language with which he could express himself with total ease and with the same familiarity of the novels he adored.

In an incessant search for himself, his identity, and a language of his own through his work, Steinberg sought on the one hand to define himself, find himself, know himself, and make himself known, while on the other hand simultaneously create and erase any traces and images of himself.

It was Steinberg himself who recounted how in the midst of this dogged research he ended up inventing “a language that did not exist before as a language.” He chose a “raw material,” i.e., drawing, and used it “to express his poetic or philosophical ideas” (Riga, p. 106). It was not the kind of drawing that comes from the tradition of life drawing, because, as Steinberg said, “life drawing reveals too much about me […] I become a kind of servant, a second-rate character” in which “I see […] my own defects.” In drawings “made from imagination,” however, Steinberg could both hide himself and introduce multiple levels of reading and interpreting his work: “I show myself and my world in the way I choose.” (Riflessi e ombre, p. 59)

And so we, the viewers, through his work, do not have access (as is usually the case) to what Steinberg “sees” as he draws; rather, we are faced with an open window into his mind and thoughts, as in a literary text or essay or treatise.

In all of this I think architecture played a very significant, albeit indirect, role. Steinberg said that the study of architecture was for him “wonderful for everything but architecture. The frightening thought that what you draw can turn into a building makes you lean toward perfectly reasoned lines.” (Riga, p. 38) His lines then, so reasoned, precise, and with crystal clear intent, are the visible imprints of his intuitions, thoughts, and reasoning.

But not only that. Just like the greatest architects, Steinberg even seemed to know what we, in turn, think or know. In fact, his drawings remind me of the Parthenon in Athens. In wanting to convey a sense of harmony, proportion and clarity, the builders of the Parthenon knew that our minds correct, modify and see in a distorted way. For example, they knew that the columns at the edges should be slightly enlarged and pushed a little closer to the others, otherwise they would risk appearing farther apart and smaller than the others; or that the base of the tympanum should be slightly curved downwards, otherwise its ends would give the impression of turning up instead of appearing horizontal. Therefore, the relationship that is established between those who build and those who absorb (in this case, an architectural space) is a sort of interconnection or collaborative effort between two creative sources: that of the designer and that of the viewer.

It is not by chance that the philosophers Roberto Casati and Achille Varzi wrote that “commenting on a drawing by Steinberg is […] like commenting on the work of a colleague” (Riga p. 398). Non only did Steinberg want and know how to speak to everybody, he wanted to be heard by everybody too.

To better approach his work, we therefore have no choice but to linger in front of his drawings, resist the desire to classify him, let his lines seep into our minds and land in his fantastic world.

— March 2022


Books quoted (citations translated by me):
Riga 24, Saul Steinberg, Marcos y Marcos (Italy, 2005)
Saul Steinberg, Lettere a Aldo Buzzi 1945-1999, Adelphi (Italy, 2002)
Saul Steinberg con Aldo Buzzi, Riflessi e ombre, Adelphi (Italy, 2001)


Rizzoli Lizard (30/11/2021)

I am really excited! On November 30th, twenty years since the publication of Manhattan Unfurled and almost 26 years to the day from when I left Milan to move to New York, a journey of sorts is coming full circle: Rizzoli Lizard will publish the accordion-format book of Milan’s skyline titled Ecco Milano: Ritratto di una città che cambia, an homage to my hometown.

Sono molto emozionato! Il 30 novembre, vent’anni dopo la pubblicazione di Manhattan Unfurled e 26 anni (quasi) esatti da quando sono andato via da Milano per trasferirmi a New York, si chiude una sorta di cerchio: uscirà, edito da Rizzoli Lizard, il libro a concertina intitolato Ecco Milano: Ritratto di una città che cambia, un omaggio alla mia città natale.

Random House, October 2001

Twenty years ago this month Random House published Manhattan Unfurled, a 22-foot-long accordion book with 2 drawings depicting the the east and west sides of Manhattan accompanied by a wonderful essay by Paul Goldberger.

The instant the book came out, it was already a memory of another era.

In Conversation with Dina Nayeri

Event

Inventing Truth with Words and Lines

Whether in art or literature, what does it mean to tell the truth, or a version of the truth? And what might it mean to invent the truth in the service of a higher truth? Looking to Matteo Pericoli’s Windows On Elsewhere: 60 Refugees, 60 Views, a project with a collection of 60 window view drawings by Pericoli depicting the present window views of 60 persons who were forced to flee their countries, as well as looking to Dina Nayeri’s book, The Ungrateful Refugee, we will explore the role of invention (or “artful fudging” as Pericoli put it) in creation.

Bill Shipsey from Art for Amnesty and Alice McCrum from the American Library in Paris will moderate the conversation.

Free event. Click here to reserve a ticket. 

 

Location
The American Library in Paris
10 Rue du Général Camou
75007 Paris
France

windowsonelsewhere.org

The official website of the Windows on Elsewhere project is online.

Windows on Elsewhere: 60 Refugees, 60 Views is a book, exhibition, and limited-edition print project with a collection of 60 window view drawings by Matteo Pericoli, depicting the present window views of sixty persons who were forced to flee their countries. The drawings are accompanied by short texts written by the refugees describing their journey from ‘elsewhere’ taking inspiration from their drawn window view.

On the surface, the drawings simply reveal the view of each refugee framed by their window. But as we read their accompanying words our attention turns inward and we get a glimpse of their past, their experiences, their emotions, and of the people, places, and stories left behind— inevitably blended with a seemingly everlasting, fleeting present.

The refugee participants in the book, who come from over thirty countries, describe what it feels like to be forced to abandon one’s home, one’s country, and, in many cases, one’s loved ones. Their stories are deeply personal and emotional and draw out the complexity, intensity and pain that are ingrained in a refugee’s journey.

 

The website was produced by Amnesty International Italia in collaboration with Art for Amnesty, producer of the project.  

Photographs from the opening of the Windows on Elsewhere exhibit at the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin (Italy)

(Courtesy of the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo)

Finally, after 3 years of work, “Windows on Elsewhere: 60 Refugees, 60 Views”, a project I worked on with Art for Amnesty, will be exhibited in Turin. The project is in support of Amnesty International Italia on the occasion of Amnesty’s 60th anniversary.

On Wednesday, May 26, the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo will inaugurate the exhibit of 60 drawings accompanied by 60 texts written by the refugees in which they share what they see from their windows, but also memories of their journeys, of what they have left behind and their hopes (the exhibit ends on July 28).

The following day, the book Finestre sull’altrove, 60 vedute per 60 rifugiati, published by Il Saggiatore will go on sale.The Lavazza Group has generously contributed by supporting the production of a series of limited edition box sets of the drawings and texts in Italian, English, French and Spanish (60 per language), which will be sold to benefit Amnesty.

Click here to visit the project’s official website.