Saturday, September 19, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –

A Major About-Face.

Rick Marschall

Marlene Dietrich

The great caricaturist Henry Major, who was born in Hungary in 1889, but most active in the United States by way of Vienna and London, once said about political cartooning:

At one time, cartoonists were put in jail for what they drew. Today, political cartoonists should be arrested for what they DON’T draw.

It is great as an aphorism, one I often recalled when I was a working political cartoonist. The problem with Major – and he had few problems! – was that he primarily was not a political cartoonist, but a caricaturist.

… and one of the best. In a sense, all caricaturists are political cartoonists, or satirists. Caricature, as a branch of the arts, is cartooning’s closest affinity to Expressionism in “fine” art. The caricature is a statement, an observation – meant not to evoke a response, nor to entertain. Observers, even the “victims,” must meet it more than halfway; whereas traditional strips and humorous cartoons reach out to readers.

I will write more about the art of caricature in the relaunch of NEMO Magazine, if you can stand it, and with a focus each issue on a master of the form.

Bing Crosby

“Are cartoonists commentators?” I once asked Al Capp, sensing the answer but seeking something quotable, which I got. “It’s inevitable,” he said. “When you draw a cat, you are commenting on cats.”

To my way of “thinking,” there are at least two schools of caricature, and a middle-ground melding that saves innumerable sub-categories. And there is no “correct” approach: they are merely different.

There are those artists who exaggerate. Big noses grow bigger; hydrocephalus infects every sitter; warts and freckles explode; large heads on little bodies populate their world.

Charles Laughton

The other school, stylistically, usually is less mannered. Sketchier. Faces, usually; not full figures. This type of drawing is called caricature by default. The mission is to capture a personality, not a likeness… but, done well, succeeds at both. In a real sense, though there be subtexts of humor or sarcasm, these caricatures are more like quick portraits. The informality, sense of irony, unconventional attitudes of the subjects all combine to make “caricature” an appropriate appelation.

David Levine is an avatar of the first school; Honore Daumier exemplified the second; Al Hirschfeld’s work clearly fell in the middle. All of them great caricaturists, surely.

Back to Henry Major. I have always loved his work, but did not know him. He became famous, especially as a roving assignment artist for Hearst enterprises, for lightning-quick sketches, celebrity caricatures, and personality drawings. He invariably drew with grease crayon, and people I have meet who knew him said that he drew, indeed, lightning-fast.

Fred Astaire 

When I earned my living (some might say under false pretenses) as a political cartoonist and caricaturist, my favored tool was the same lithograph crayon. I tend to like an artist’s studies and sketches more than finished canvases; and as an artist I have often been happy with preliminary sketches and disliked my “finishes,” because I tend to tighten up and lose the spontaneity I seek.

The grease crayon allows an artist to look informal even when exactitude is needed. The heavy or light lines, and shading, can cover a multitude of “sins,” and pleasingly. With pens, artists like Heinrich Kley and John Groth achieved the same magic; but they were magicians. The crayon allows the artist to create depth by suggesting shadows; can (yes) cover the mistakes of the quick-sketch with manic shading – see Fred Astaire’s hat here.

And there is a “permanence” to penlines that, despite exaggerations, suggest that some caricatures aspire to be a distorted but formal portrait. The crayon-sketch, on the other hand, is like a snapshot, free of pretense and self-consciousness.

I promised you to get back to Henry Major. I never met him, but I have collected his work, and knew people who knew him. I recall in this “Crowded Life” essay Mary Joe Connolly, of whom I shall write more some week. Mary Joe, the daughter of Joe Connolly, knew every star of King Features Syndicate and the Hearst empire, because her father was president of King Features, International News Service, Good Housekeeping, American Weekly, Pictorial Review, and the many other domains of that empire. After Arthur Brisbane – and maybe including him – Connolly was the best right-hand man Hearst ever had… by Hearst’s many testimonials.

Lewis Milestone

Mary Joe worked at King, too, after her father’s early death in 1945. She was an award-winning photographer, and her editorial work included ghosting the Hints from Heloise column; a Jill of all trades.

Many celebrities came and went from the Connolly home in Westchester County (and I am thinking of another remarkable friend who had a remarkable father – Russelle Patterson, daughter of the great illustrator Russell Patterson – about whom I shall write here too) and Henry Major was a frequent guest. An amiable friend, he was also available to sketch the “cabbages and kings,” anyone you could name from the 1920s to the 1940s.

I acquired some of Mary Joe’s collection, including personal and corporate archives of her father. Historical treasures galore, including many back-stories and “inside baseball” details of the time, including promotional material, contracts, and such.

But. The Major point this week is Henry, the caricaturist. The Connolly family scrapbook is filled with sketches he did of Joe and Marguerite, Mary Joe and Buddy. Many, through the years. Hearst cartoonists; celebrities in the news (like Lindbergh and Floyd Gibbons); sports stars like Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey; movie stars like… well, of course, Marion Davies.

Many homes of the time, especially “power” couples, had guestbooks. The Connollys had a running register of Henry Major’s caricatures.

I share some of his work here. One afternoon the cartoonists George McManus and Jimmy Murphy visited the Connollys; Henry sketched them all, including himself. The other celebrity drawings will illustrate my point about the forgiving nature of the grease crayon – its creative malleability. And its almost magical properties. A mistaken stroke “works out,” creating a shadow or upturned eyebrow or hinted smile.

Henry Major (right) with George McManus (Bringing Up Father; left), Jimmy Murphy (Toots and Casper), and King Features President Joseph V Connolly, standing.

A little bump in the paper made a white spot in Charles Laughton’s right eye and lent reality. The crayon, applied with otherwise illogical heaviness, allowed Major to accentuate the contours of Dietrich’s cheekbone and jawline, ultimately as distinctive as her famous eyes.

Close up of Major’s caricature of the four friends

I have always maintained that the best caricature is that, when you might not know the subject (from the past, or a stranger)… you look at it, and you do know the subject! Of the group of sketches I share here, the film director Lewis Milestone might be the least familiar today. And his profile the most “cartooney,” in that first category of “exaggeration.”

But is it? You have the feeling it is closest to reality, an unusual face perhaps, but captured faithfully. It’s almost like we know him.

And that was a common, but Major, accomplishment.


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