#232 (Vol. 2 #4): DAVID LEVINE ON STAGE
The great caricaturist David Levine, who passed away at the close of 2009, was the subject of a sad profile article, “Levine in Winter“, written by David Margolick in Vanity Fair in November of the previous year. It was yet another variation on what has become an all too familiar theme: the troubles of the comics or cartoon art professional when, for whatever reason, his career goes into decline. Levine’s brilliant caricatures of politicians, authors, and other notables had regularly appeared in The New York Review of Books for over forty years. His work appeared in other publications as well, but the Review published half his work over the years. But, in his eighties, Levine suffered from macular degeneration, which greatly dimmed his vision, hence handicapping his ability to draw. This led to an awkward situation: though Levine believed he could adapt and continue working, the Review no longer gave him assignments.
But was Levine’s later work really that bad or beyond improving? In 2008 Fantagraphics Books published American Presidents, a book of Levine’s caricatures. which closed with a recent portrait of Barack Obama that, while not in Levine’s classic style, was nonetheless good.
But Levine was cast adrift, and believed he had been fired. In his article Margolick asserted that “Without his work, he [Levine] has lost the structure of his life—sometimes, it’s hard for him to remember the day of the week—and his chief means of self-expression.”
He remained under contract to the Review, which accordingly continued to pay him a four figure salary per month, for reprinting his older work, enough to make some people happy, but a comedown from the over $12,000 per month he used to get. He did not get health insurance or a pension from the Review, though it seems that longtime writers for the review didn’t, either. Moreover, although original art for Levine’s caricatures is owned by museums, Levine was having trouble selling his original artwork for his caricatures, even though many have been acquired by art museums in the past. According to the article, “‘Nobody’s been asking,’ says Levine. “Maybe I have to die first.’”
The Presidents book had reawakened my interest in Levine’s work, and following his death, I explored parts of the virtual gallery of his caricatures on The New York Review of Books web site. I spent most of my time looking through sections devoted to figures from the performing arts, which proved particularly enlightening to me. These drawings demonstrated just how insightful Levine was in using the art of caricature to portray the complexities of a man or woman’s personality within a single image.
I began with a section on literary characters, in which I found only Levine’s picture of Shakespeare’s King Lear, from June 25, 1964, and demonstrated Levine’s ability to provide insights through depicting contrast and paradox. The conventional strategy for depicting Lear would be to show him as a grand, tragic monarch. Instead, Levine shows him as the head of an old man, warily peering out from a trash can. It’s an image that might perhaps remind readers of comedy characters who similarly live in trash cans: Hanna-Barbera’s Top Cat, who will be the subject of a future column, and Sesame Street’s Oscar the Grouch, who debuted years after this caricature was first published. But Levine more likely has in mind the character of Hamm, who lives in a trash can in Samuel Beckett’s play Endgame. I would not be surprised if Levine’s caricature was a reference to director Peter Brook’s production of King Lear, starring Paul Scofield in the title role, which was greatly influenced by Beckett’s works. (Brook and Scofield later made a film version of King Lear in 1971, which TCM will telecast in March.) Levine has made Lear look something like a clown, hiding in a trash can, presumably because, like Brook, he sees Beckett and the theater of the absurd as a modern means of interpreting the grim absurdity of Lear’s fate, the king who is reduced to a madman wandering the heath. That trash can not only emphasizes how far Lear has fallen, from monarch to tramp, but also suggests that fate, and his ungrateful daughters, are treating Lear as if he were trash. Levine could have portrayed Lear in his famous scenes in which he rages at his daughters or even at the elements during the storm on the heath. But instead he shows Lear’s vulnerability: the old man fearfully hiding from his abusers.
The picture of Lear also shows two of his young tormentors on either side of the trash can, berating him. These figures and their costumes remind me of characters that Sir John Tenniel might have drawn into his illustrations for the original editions of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books. As one of the great political caricaturists of the 19th century, Tenniel was an artistic forebear of Levine, and this portrait of Lear and two of his tormentors thus becomes Levine’s homage to Tenniel, making the stylistic influence of Tenniel on Levine clear. Most noticeably, Levine, like Tenniel, gives his subjects enormous, caricatured heads and tiny bodies.
I then turned to a section called “Actors, Film and Theatre Personalities“. The first picture that caught my eye here was of another tramp: Charlie Chaplin in his most famous screen persona, from October 22, 1964. Here Levine goes in the opposite direction than he did with Lear. The conventional choice would have been to present Chaplin’s tramp as a joyous figure of comedy, waddling with his cane or performing some slapstick gag. Or perhaps Levine could have shown the Tramp as rebel, fighting back against some bully or authority figure, or the familiar image of the Tramp as a figure of pathos, walking off alone towards the horizon. But instead Levine makes the Tramp look like, well, a real tramp, sitting on the ground, looking up with wariness and perhaps frustration at a policeman, a literally faceless figure of authority (his head is out of the frame) towering over him, while nudging him with a nightstick. Here Levine is pointing to the underlying source of the Tramp’s comedy and appeal: the genuine poverty and suffering which Chaplin’s Tramp fights and sometimes defeats through his humor and courage.
Charles Laughton, in a portrait published February 15, 1990, seems to be depicted in his costume and persona as the wily but benevolent Senator Gracchus of ancient Rome in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960), with a toga, laurel wreath, and big, beaming smile. Of the many performances I’ve seen Laughton give in films, this is my favorite–perhaps it was Levine’s as well–with his U. S. Senator in Otto Preminger’s Advise and Consent (1962), a very similar part, as runner-up. Perhaps Levine chose to portray Laughton thus also as a tribute to his professional stature, as if he were a member of a pantheon of great actors in a classic tradition. Levine shows Laughton leaning on one arm, at ease, a pose that suits both Gracchus and one’s image of Laughton: so masterful at what he does that he made it look easy, and he can relax and enjoy himself.
In his portrait of Humphrey Bogart (May 18, 1972), Levine makes the gun he holds look tiny, but his bow tie look enormous. Bogart often wears bow ties in his later films, which, by today’s fashions, look rather peculiar. One might expect to see a tweedy academic wear a bow tie (yes, I used to, decades ago), but not the movies’ preeminent tough guy. But Levine chooses to emphasize another aspect of Bogart than the tough guy image. He draws Bogart with a particularly immense head, emphasizing his sad eyes, with slated eyebrows reinforcing this sense of sorrow. Levine emphasizes the crinkles beneath Bogart’s eyes, showing his age and perhaps weariness. Bogart’s lips, rather than tightly curling in a characteristic scowl, look loose and uneven, again like those of an aging man. Rather than show us Bogart’s familiar aggressiveness, Levine instead chooses to show us the vulnerability in Bogart’s screen character, the melancholy that is just as much a part of his familiar persona. Levine also thus reminds us that Bogart was not a young man when he became a true star, that, from High Sierra (1941) on, he played heroes in mid-life who were grappling with the choices they had made in life and aware of their mortality.
Levine’s picture of film director Ingmar Bergman from March 8, 1973, turns him into a deeply unhappy man the size of a child, cradled in the lap of a monumental woman. This is a satiric variation on a memorable image from Bergman’s then-new film Cries and Whispers (1973), in which the dying woman played by Harriet Andersson lies in the lap of the large woman who is her devoted nurse. That, in turn, seems to be an obvious allusion to Michelangelo’s Pieta, the statue of the dead Christ lying in the lap of his mother. Levine seems to be cleverly and cuttingly commenting on the way that Bergman poured out his emotional turmoil in his films and often, as in Cries and Whispers, made women his leading characters. Here Levine seems to be caricaturing Bergman as someone who hasn’t truly grown up, who is an emotional wreck who seeks solace from women he views as idealized mother figures.
Levine’s portrait of Jerry Seinfeld, from August 14, 1997, at first looks wholly positive. Seinfeld looks directly at us, confidence in his eyes and grin, and he seems to be standing in a relaxed position, one leg crossed over the other. But his arms are folded in front of his chest, a classic defensive gesture. Does this mean that the crossing of his legs is likewise defensive? Is Levine signaling that Seinfeld’s public image as extroverted comedian is a public facade, and that he is hiding the true self from us?
Levine presents Richard Burton in an April 27, 1989 drawing playing one of his most famous stage roles, as Hamlet. But Burton is posed standing precariously with one foot atop a skull–presumably that of the jester Yorick–while holding a bottle, signifying Burton’s notorious alcoholism. So Levine presents Burton as trying to strike a similarly precarious balance between his artistic achievements and his flaws. Did Burton succeed? Or did he reduce his career as an arguably great classical actor to something akin to a jester doing a balancing act? He gives Burton a wistful, yearning look, like that of a young man searching for his artistic goal, or like Hamlet himself, but gives Burton oddly empty-looking eyes, with mere dots for pupils, as if Burton’s artistic vision is clouded by an alcoholic haze. Yorick’s skull is one of the most memorable images of mortality in literature. By having Burton stand atop Yorick’s skull, Levine likens him to Yorick as well as Hamlet, while reminding the viewer of Burton’s own early demise.
Levine’s portrait of Fred Astaire from Nov. 29, 1993, is a prime example of his technique of drawing contradictions. Astaire looks old, but he has a big, happy smile, and extends one arm gracefully outward; the top half of his body is still. Beneath the waist Levine shows multiple images of legs, as if Astaire is moving in a frenzy. And there is the paradox: serenity coexisting with speed. Astaire is dancing with a female partner, whose face is concealed, but has lots of what seems blonde hair, and who wears a long gown. She has many, many feet, so she too is moving at great speed, though, significantly, she does not raise them as high as Astaire. Her hair and costume and speed suggest Ginger Rogers, but by hiding her face Levine makes her into every dance partner Astaire ever had, while making clear that Astaire is the dominant figure in the partnership and the portrait.
Levine’s method of portraying contradiction and contrast is very apparent in his October 21, 1982 caricature of Louise Brooks, a star of silent films an early talkies, most famously in G. W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929), whose acting career plunged into oblivion, but who resurfaced late in life as a talented memoirist. Levine pictures her as virtually naked, but crossing her arms over her bust, an exhibitionist but vulnerable, part of her still modest. Levine gives her her trademark hairdo but huge, sad eyes, as if she is distressed at her typecasting as sex symbol.
Levine clearly likes Preston Sturges, the writer and director of such great and classic comedies as The Lady Eve (1941), Sullivan’s Travels (1941), The Palm Beach Story (1942), and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944). Levine gives Sturges an impish look through his eyes and smile, indicating the wit and high comedic spirits of his films, puts him in a suit with wide lapels, and puts what may be a traveler’s scarf or a well-dressed man’s ascot around his neck, and has him carrying a bag at the end of a stick, a classic prop for a hobo. This probably refers to the film often considered Sturges’ best, the seriocomic Sullivan’s Travels, whose film director protagonist spends time living as a homeless tramp to study the dark side of life and ends up discovering the importance of comedy to lift people’s spirits in hard times. so Levine thus casts Sturges as Sullivan. Perhaps Levine was also hinting at the collapse of Sturges’ short, brilliant filmmaking career, and suggesting that the wit of his comedies nonetheless lives on. This image certainly casts Sturges as the artist/comedian as outsider, able to take a comic perspective from being an outsider. Levine’s Sturges as tramp is thus more typically Chaplinesque than Levine’s own aforementioned portrait of Chaplin.
But then there are the people whom Levine clearly did not like. Levine’s his March 6, 1997 portrait of John Wayne casting him in his iconic cinematic image as western gunfighter, but disturbingly alters that image. Under grim eyes; Wayne smiles, but that smile hardly seems benevolent. Instead Wayne’s expression looks disconcerting and ominous, and his face seems distorted in some way that is hard to define. Was Levine portraying the John Wayne of The Searchers (1956), in which he played a dangerous, obsessed figure? Or was this the leftist Levine’s comment on Wayne’s real life right wing politics?
The most devastating of these portraits is that of Leni Riefenstahl, director of the infamous Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will (1934), who lived to be 101 years old, spending the last half of her life downplaying her allegiance to the Third Reich. In his Feb. 6, 1975 picture of her, drawn while she was still very much alive, Levine portrays her with a fanatical look, a disconcertingly fixed smile, and snakelike locks of hair, as if she were a modern Medusa, holding a camera, garbed in a Nazi uniform, sitting atop a pile of skulls.
This is reminiscent of Levine’s most biting caricatures of presidents, which you can find in another section of this online gallery, as well as in Fantagraphics’ book. Here too is Levine’s use of contrast: the smiling face of Harry Truman emerging in dark irony from the mushroom cloud of Hiroshima (July 9, 1964). Levine has his heroes: Thomas Jefferson is shown in heroic profile (Aug. 13, 1981), and though Levine portrays George Washington (Aug. 12, 1982) and Abraham Lincoln (Oct. 25, 1979) in their ugliness, they nonetheless have a certain directness and nobility about them. Franklin Roosevelt was Levine’s hero, and he generally conveys Roosevelt’s jauntiness and joy in his various portraits of him (as in an October 25, 1979 picture). He can be devastating in portraying those he dislikes: Richard Nixon becomes an enormous rat (Nov. 29, 1973).
And then there is perhaps Levine’s most famous caricature, from May 12, 1966, inspired by the incident when Lyndon Johnson revealed his operation scar to reporters: Levine turned the scar into the shape of Vietnam. This is an indictment of Johnson’s role in the war, which had metaphorically become part of him, but it also shows a certain sympathy for him: the Vietnam war had become his self-inflicted wound. Caricature is usually thought to work by reducing a figure to a comedic figure, but Levine’s work at its best portrayed his subjects in their complexity, mixing comedy with pathos and even tragedy.
-Copyright 2010 Peter Sanderson
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