William Steig’s illustration for Shrek, 1990 (Collection of William Steig Estate)
The exhibition “From The New Yorker to Shrek: The Art of William Steig” at New York City’s Jewish Museum on Fifth Avenue at 92nd Street, presents the work of artist, author, illustrator and cartoonist William Steig (1907-2003) who started drawing for The New Yorker as a young man and who, at the age of 61, embarked on a second career as the author/illustrator of gloriously odd children’s books. My daughters’ and my favorites are Brave Irene (Windmill Simon, 1986) and Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (Windmill Simon, 1970), which won the Caldecott Medal as “the most distinguished American picture book for children” of that year. Sylvester is the story of a donkey who finds a magical pebble and, in a moment of panic, makes an ill-considered wish. After a desolate winter as a stone in a field, Sylvester, returning to sentient life, is reunited with his loving parents. Brave Irene is the stalwart daughter of a seamstress; Irene braves harsh winter winds to deliver the dress her ill mother has sewn for a duchess, just in time for the ball. The pivotal point, especially resonant for girls and mothers of girls, is the moment Irene defies nature by shouting she will not fail because it is her mother’s work. (Steig’s own mother was a seamstress.) Steig had an imagination that was abundant and sly. His stories are never, not even for a moment, saccharine. The feelings are as intense as the images are sophisticated: not a common conjunction.
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.