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Saturday, October 11, 2008

"Wickedly intelligent and shamelessly unfair"

There's a terrific but fairly heartbreaking article up at Vanity Fair's site about the great caricaturist David Levine. Levine is one of the very few living caricaturists whose work could bear comparison to the historical giants of caricature, like Daumier, Gillray, Cruikshank and Nast. The only other living artist I can think of who might fit in with that company would be Oliphant. To be a political caricaturist of that stature, you need a rare blend of psychological acuity and distillable rage. You can see the two at work in the drawing of William F. Buckley, above -- one of my favorite of Levine's hatchet jobs.

(It seems wrong to talk about modern caricature and not mention Hirschfeld, but the elegance of his style carried him into another category -- he didn't seem to have the neccessary quotient of vituperation to become a political cartoonist)

Levine drew caricatures for the New York Review of Books for over 40 years. I'd noticed, a couple years ago, that his recent caricatures were deteriorating -- he was abandoning his sharp pen line for smudgy pencil, and his figures were becoming foggy, indistinct. I remember one drawing of Obama done in that mode:

It's actually an attractive drawing, but the blurriness of Levine's recent output made me worried about his health. I thought about asking around on a cartoonist message board or two to see if anyone knew how he was holding up, but it seemed indelicate to ask at the time. As the Vanity Fair article discloses, his eyesight has begun to fail him -- a circumstance that seems insupportably cruel, especially while Henry Kissinger is still around, and still deserving of newly-minted acts of graphical character assassination.

I've had caricature on my mind lately, because Cody Garcia has been bringing some caricatures to class -- he posted a really successful one of Obama to his blog.

Here are a few more Levine links:

A searchable gallery of his work for the NYROB.

A webpage for a show of drawings of American Presidents and paintings currently running at the Forum Gallery in New York.

And here's an interview with Levine that the Forum Gallery produced. Some of the narration is intolerable (I personally think the NYROB is the best magazine for political and literary news being published today -- as an oasis of thoughtful, incisive commentary that actually helps to make sense of the world, it's been indispensable to my overall mental well-being -- but the attempt, in the narration, to equate the singles in the NYROB back pages to a squadron of little Petrarchs made my stomach turn over). But tune that stuff out, and it's nice, after all these years of having watched Levine's line, to be able to hear his voice.

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