William Steig’s illustration for Shrek, 1990 (Collection of William Steig Estate)
The exhibition is beautifully installed, with two rhapsodically decorated reading rooms, glass cases showing adulatory letters from legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn, philanthropist and collector Nelson Rockefeller and others, along with a movie in which Steig talks about his childhood in the Bronx and its abrupt end, when, in reaction to the Great Depression, his father informed him that supporting the family was “all up to you.” Accordingly, Steig started drawing cartoons, which he could sell for as little as $5 or as much, at The New Yorker, as $25. It’s fascinating to see the progress of his work—from rough caricatures of scruffy street kids to lyrical drawings of elegant, gently satirized swells.
I’m perhaps too fond of picture books and New Yorker covers, and William Steig was one of my favorites, but this exhibition, especially the filmed interview with Steig, affected me very much. Steig was a fabulous artist/author and a gentle, also prescient, man, as evidenced by this segment from the speech he gave at the Caldecott ceremony in 1970: “I am well aware not only of the importance of children—whom we naturally cherish and who also embody our hopes for the future—but also of the importance of what we provide for them in the way of art; and I realize that we are competing with a lot of other cultural influences, some of which beguile them in false directions.” Steig’s work beguiles children and adults in the very best direction; it proclaims the authority and freedom of the imagination, the importance of family, the imperative of kindness: an estimable legacy that this beautiful exhibition honors and extends.
The exhibition at the Jewish Museum closes on March 16. There are panel discussions, book chats and other related events; to find the schedules, visit www.thejewishmuseum.org.