The son of a Romanian printer, Saul Steinberg was born in 1914. The marriage between his parents was very tense because of his mother’s harsh perfectionism. He left home to study philosophy at the University of Budapest and from there moved on to study architecture at the Politenico in Milan, Italy. Steinberg was very poor while he was living in Italy and would sell his sketches to earn money. Soon his cartoons were being published in an Italian humor newspaper called Bertoldo.
“The cat is trying to open the door on the hinges side. I laugh, then I see I make the same mistake, with people, ideas, and doors too.” -Steinberg
After graduating from the Politenico in 1940, Steinberg was forced to flee Italy. Fascism was taking over Italy and Jews were being placed into concentration camps. It took a couple of attempts, a stay in the Dominican Republic, and some help from The New Yorker (Steinberg had been sending them cartoons while he was in the Dominican Republic) to get Steinberg into the U.S. in 1941. His citizenship came with a stint in the U.S. Navy where he witness the horror or war firsthand. He had a very unusual placement within the Navy’s ranks as described by his biographer, Dierdre Bair:
“Fluent in his native Romanian and Italian, with excellent French and good German, able to get by in Spanish, and with a smattering of Portuguese and comprehensible English, he was sent to be a spy in inland China.”
When his time with the navy was done, Steinberg married Hedda Stern and continued to draw for The New Yorker. His marriage would break up in the 1960’s (they remained close friends for the rest of his life), but his relationship with The New Yorker would continue for about 60 years. He drew more than 90 covers and 1200 other drawings for The New Yorker. He did more than 80 solo exhibitions of his work across the U.S. and Europe.
“Four is an interesting number because it is a shape that would arouse the curiosity of a cat.” – Steinberg
In Steinberg’s artwork each figure or texture is representative of something else. Numbers are not just numbers, nor are letters or other symbols what they usually are within Steinberg’s work. He considered himself to be a “writer who draws.” He liked to pick the world apart to tell its story- what is on the inside of something verses what is on the outside. In his opinion everyone wears masks; we have an inner self that is unique to us, but we put on a mask to cover up the things we don’t want other people to see. The mask helps us to look the way we think we are supposed to look to other people.
“Cats and dogs, being domesticated, being near people, are people.” -Steinberg
According to Steinberg, the cats he used represented a certain type of people. It would not be a far leap to say that Steinberg represented himself as a cat from time to time. He believed that cats represented the type of artist who can turn off the world and become engrossed in their own world. This type of person does not tied to the people around them. They are very unique individuals.
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