The renowned caricaturist David Levine died on Tuesday, December 29, 2009. He was 83. In 2008, he spoke with The Nation’s Christine Smallwood about the art of caricature and his interests in painting.
David Levine is the best-known caricaturist of our time, celebrated especially for his illustrations for The New York Review of Books, to which he contributed from the very first issue until macular degeneration forced him to forsake ink for pencil this past winter. He lives in Brooklyn, where he was born and raised. —Christine Smallwood
How did you find yourself at The New York Review of Books?
They found me. The man who was my art director at Esquire was called upon by Barbara Epstein to design the cover of the publication. All that big type, big woodblock type, was his idea. Ed Sorel told me that he had turned it down. I don’t know why. I think he would have been terrific at it. We’re all crazy.
What do you think your impact has been?
I don’t mean to put this in egotistic terms, but I think, given the present number of large head and small body caricatures and so on, I think I started a run. There were things with big heads and little bodies going back to Greek and Roman times, but not that many, and not in Brooklyn. What’s interesting is there’s a very large range [of young caricaturists]. There are some who are just dead-on classical, but classical in the worst sense–they do something and illustrate it with details and spotlights and things like that. Caricature is a form of hopeful statement: I’m drawing this critical look at what you’re doing, and I hope that you will learn something from what I’m doing.
Is what you do different from political cartooning?
There is a different requirement. There is a pressure on political cartoonists to do five, six and seven drawings a week. I never had anything like that as a pressure. I could take time to really look it over and think about it, read the articles and so on. The political cartoonists don’t get a chance. The headlines are saying this and this about so-and-so, and you have to come up with something which is approved by an editor. I almost never had to get an approval. In forty years I may have run into a disagreement with The New York Review maybe two times.
How would you like to be remembered?
I want somebody to look at my paintings and try to put me back together. Right now most people don’t know my paintings but certainly do know my caricatures. I would like it to be: he draws, he paints, he does all the things with graphic possibilities in different media, and does them well. I don’t think they’re going to turn the world over in any way. Somebody will not get an idea from Picasso of a sense of the species other than the fact that it’s really wacko. I frequently quiet down or calm down a caricature. A young one comes and shows me work, and everything is so overdistorted that you can’t recognize it as a human being. And I say that to them. Your primary thing is not to leave your species on a dump. And also not to come with a portfolio for only the rich, only the famous, only the 10-year-old little blondes who are passing for our beautiful girls. I mean this is just a very corrupt period in that sense. And I and my friends are standing for what we really love in painting and in other things, hoping.
What did you think of the 2005 Danish cartoon controversy?
It’s basically very simple for me. Anybody should be able to say anything they damn well please. Anybody can criticize it, too. But to threaten, these things with murdering somebody… the world should stand up suddenly and say no.
Are there artists today you particularly dislike?
Mostly whatever they’re presenting as people drawn by people in The New Yorker. I think they’ve let down the barrier of quality, and it is just terrible. Sometimes funny ideas, but I do not understand what they call cartoons anymore. It’s, How well did you do it? Why did you do it? I came out of a radical house. The covers on the pamphlets were always of workers as great strong beasts, and the capitalists were always wide, round people who could eat most of the nation and so on. Those artists presented an image: the class struggle is still going on.
Will caricature always be here? Is it an art for the ages?
At one point in Middle Europe there were a great deal of anti-Semitic attacks, and a rabbi built a powerful creature called a golem out of mud. And this figure then protected the Jews. My point here is that there’s always been something cartoonish that eventually became caricatures. The caricatures are drawn out of the artist when something calls. Something calls at a time of corruption and the breakdown of our democracy and all these things that we’re finding–CEOs are walking away with billions and people are starving and so on. That draws something on the part of some cartoonists, who leave the cartooning and really get into discussion, as Ed Sorel does, as Jules Feiffer does and hopefully as I do, each in a little different way. In a sense it’s like the golem. When things are settled, he’s not needed. There’s a point where it could just be entertaining. But I don’t know when.
Are you pessimistic about the future, politically speaking?
It’s either that or jump out of a building.