Until news of the slaughter in Paris flooded the internet, television, newspapers and magazines, I had been unaware of the publication, CHARLIE HEBDO, a weekly magazine of gloves off satire and cartoon commentary. And while the initial reports made it sound like HEBDO focused on Islam and Muslims alone, it became evident that the magazine excoriated all faiths and spared no politician. It was a horrible act of criminality, perpetrated, depending on your point of view, by thugs and losers misrepresenting their religion or a crime committed by homicidal religious fanatics acting as sanctioned enforcers for their version of God, seeking to strike terror into the heart of free expression. They planned on dying no matter what. Their allegiance was not to life, laughter and love, but to an ideology saturated in nihilism and death.
Reactions were immediate and across the board condemnation- at least on the surface level. However, as Salman Rushdie, no stranger to the murderous threats of reactionary Islamic fundamentalism, pointed out, the “Buts” were infiltrating the commentary. “It was a terrible act, BUT the magazine was sort of asking for it by publishing inflammatory cartoons…BUT the cartoonists shouldn’t be disrespecting religion…BUT for the lack of restraint…BUT…BUT. Even Pope Francis, who has been enjoying a love affair with the general public for his seemingly more balanced viewpoints on religion and Catholicism dropped the ball by echoing the “BUT” by applying notions of censorship or self censorship in matters pertaining to satirizing religions- all religions. By saying all religions the bases are covered and one does not sound like a special interest ideologue.
An examination of the history of satire quickly reveals that religion and politics, and their leaders and partisans, have been the frequent objects of visual assault. Where nations are governed by more democratic, freedom embracing principles the stinging and provocative nature of satire is tolerated and protected, if not necessarily appreciated by the objects of the lampooning. The idea that one’s religion is off limits to attack, even mean spirited attack, is not acceptable. A censoring of one topic leads to the censorship of others. Under those conditions anyone can express outrage and victimization and demand the dogs to be called off, or worse, invent a justification to react violently. Looking through the latest issue of HEBDO and using my Google translate, I found a range of quality in the cartooning. Some of the gags worked and were funny, others didn’t ring any bells. Until the massacre, the magazine’s circulation apparently was in the neighborhood of 30,000. The killings have given HEBDO a notoriety beyond the wildest expectations and raised the awareness of the publication. Still, it seems amazing and perverse that cartoons can stir up mass hysteria, riots and killing among large portions of populations who more than likely have never even seen the images. They are stirred up in this circumstance by religious leaders cynically exploiting the ignorance of the followers to their more malicious ends.
I was contacted by The New York Observer, along with several other illustrators- Steve Brodner being one- to create an image for an editorial response to the killings. I chose to stick to black and white, and pen and ink, in my illustration. It seemed fitting to employ Liberty from the French artist Delacroix’s iconic “Liberty Leading the People” and make some adjustments. The drawing flowed nicely, but my deficiency in la langue Francais, almost derailed my intentions when I misused a verb that I thought to mean fuck only to find out that it also meant kiss, and even if it did mean fuck, it meant it in a more affectionate manner. Talk about the uncomfortable scenario of explaining myself if the image appeared as it might have. I turned away from the Google translate and consulted living speakers and came up with something that even if sounding pretty wordy at least was more accurate. So a twelfth hour rewrite and patching was required.
Almost concurrently I received a request through channels to contribute something to a group tribute for LeMonde. I used that opportunity to draw something up more in the spirit of Charlie Hebdo (this time the French was correct) and sent that out along with the Observer drawing after making sure the folks at the NYO were cool with the potential re-use. Due to some miscommunication, apparently only 10 images were to be selected for the actual hard copy issue with the others part of the online publication. I was not in the select group. No matter. I had great fun drawing the image with my brush pens.
Tomi Ungerer visited the Society of Illustrators today for a lunch. Accompanying him were his wife, Yvonne, daughter Aria and her partner Herman (who has been archiving Tomi’s thousands of pieces of artwork). Also in attendance were illustrators extraordinaire Steve Brodner and Ellen Weinstein and the Society’s director, Anelle Miller. I shared a truly memorable lunch with Tomi a few years back and the opportunity to sit and break bread was not to be missed. I had already postponed a long planned knee surgery to attend Tomi’s opening reception a few days before at the Drawing Center (35 Wooster Street, NYC) which has on exhibit a marvelous and sizeable collection of Tomi’s work that will run till March. Tomi had been obviously worn down from the exhaustive schedule of signings, interviews and get togethers since arriving in town but was in wonderfully good spirits at the table, marveling at the artwork of the current annual exhibition on the walls and expressing such love and fond memories of the Society. His love and appreciation of illustration was all embracing and he expressed an unembarrassed fan boy awe of illustrators from Rockwell and Charles Dana Gibson to Ralph Steadman to the new generation sharing the wall space. Tomi did reveal a certain sadness at not being able to spend more quality time with old friends and acquaintances during his short stay. He was a deep well of stories and observations, good humor and word play. We touched on the murders at Charlie Hebdo and Tomi grimly observed the irreconciable nature of current tensions and that we are witnesses to the beginnings of a Third World War. Steve responded, "Yes, it seems that way." "No, not seems. It is." was Tomi's reply. It was one of the only moments where his mood turned dark and pessimistic.
It was inevitable but the sketching started while we lunched. First Steve and I drew portraits of Tomi on Society menus, which he later signed (before leaving, Tomi did a funny self portrait on one as well). Then I pulled out my sketch pad- always bring your sketch pad- and did a couple that turned out more satisfactory in the good lighting and close proximity and made up for the disappointing results in the standing room only poor lighting Drawing Center interview the previous Saturday with art director and author, Steve Heller.
These are peak moments in a person’s life. My ride back upstate was filled with reflections on the lunch and the conversation and the simple act of listening to one of the singular masters of the art of illustration and idea creation and the great richness of spirit and love. It was a pleasure as well to spend time talking with Yvonne, Aria, and Herman. It is often easy to forget that in the lives of great artists their opportunities to create are often greatly enhanced by core family support, especially when they get on in years. Tomi is blessed in such a way by the obvious love and commitment of his family. They act as bedrock and also as reality check.
Whether you are an established professional or just graduating from art school you would do yourself a huge benefit viewing the documentary on Tomi’s life, FAR OUT ISN’T FAR ENOUGH. The exhibition at the Drawing Center is a must see for anyone interested in brilliant, and subversive, thinking combined with marvelous artistry.