When was the last time you laughed out loud at an art exhibit? Or suddenly found yourself in conversation with nearby strangers about the works on view? If this sounds like the perfect tonic for frayed nerves, it is that, and much more besides.
“It” is William Steig: Love & Laughter, on view through Oct. 31 at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Massachusetts. This show will not just calm your nerves, it will do your heart, soul, mind, body and probably your gall bladder some good, too. If you are headed up to the Berkshires to peep at the leaves, you owe yourself a soothing side-trip to Stockbridge, because a museum filled with the work of William Steig is a party waiting to happen.
Perhaps best known today for the Shrek movies based on one of his many children’s book characters, Steig (1907-2003) was a seriously funny artist. That is, he is as rip-roaring funny as he is deeply serious, which probably explains why his art is both timeless and ageless. Even his children books — such cross-generational delights as Dominic, Rotten Island, Roland the Minstrel Pig, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble — contained fear and trembling along with the slapstick (“Shrek” in Yiddish, means “fear”).
Steig first entered New Yorker’s pages in the 1930s, charming a Depression-era nation with his series of cartoons called “Small Fry,” images that, along with Steig’s book The Agony in the Kindergarten (1950), surely must have influenced Charles M. Schulz. In the 1940s, Steig created a “Dreams of Glory” series that buoyed the spirits of a war-weary nation; he also began a series about clowns that perhaps served as an early prototype for Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead. On view here are such hilarious images as “Clowns Playing Archery,” “Clown Family at Dinner,” and “Clown on Mule and Knight in Armor,” the latter conveying and mocking the war impulse as completely and subtly as anything by Goya or Daumier.
Indeed, Steig was so productive over his 75-year career that it would be hard to imagine any younger artists who were not influenced by his work. Two more examples: Without Steig’s “Persistent Faces” series — many on view here — Basil Wolverton’s twisted visages in Mad magazine would have been unthinkable. And, if Steig hadn’t created his wobbly, bedraggled animal figures, George Booth may not have gone to the dogs, nor B. Kliban to the cats. It should be noted thatCharlie Chaplin and Groucho Marx than Emma Goldman or Karl Marx.
Love & Laughter makes clear that Steig belongs in the company of New Yorker stalwarts Thurber, Steinberg and Charles Addams, if not among more exalted artists like Marc Chagall and Alexander Calder. Like his hero William Blake, Steig was able to capture the joys of existence without bathing it in treacle. He was equally adept at depicting moments of deep psychological pain with kindness, dignity and humor.
As his wife said in her New York Times tribute upon Steig’s death, he was “a tragicomic artist … you have to feel both the truth and the grief of the truth, and find a way to present them with redeeming delight.”