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"Drawing Without a License"

His sharp-witted illustrations, instantly recognizable, have appeared in many of America's best-known magazines. Now, in a new book, Edward Sorel looks back over thirty years of "unauthorized portraits."

November 6, 1997

Unauthorized Portraits Edward Sorel's artwork stands out as faithful to a dying tradition of illustrative drawing. His on-target caricatures, witty cartoons, and distinctive style (characterized by loose, energetic lines) have made him one of today's most respected and sought-after illustrators. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including Harper's, Esquire, The Nation, Rolling Stone, Time, and, most recently, The New Yorker. He has also written and illustrated a number of children's books.

Sorel's work appeared regularly in The Atlantic between the years of 1982 and 1995, during which time he illustrated several Atlantic covers and collaborated with his wife, Nancy Caldwell Sorel, a writer, on the regular feature "First Encounters," which depicted the first meetings of famous figures (such as John James Audubon and Sir Walter Scott, and Tennessee Williams and Marlon Brando).

Some of Sorel's best work from the past thirty years has now been collected, along with commentary by the artist, in Unauthorized Portraits. Ever prolific, in just the past few months he has illustrated several more New Yorker covers, written and illustrated an article on film noir for the December issue of GQ, and produced another children's book (soon to be published by Simon & Schuster).

Sorel recently spoke with Atlantic Unbound's Sage Stossel.

Discuss this interview in the Arts & Literature forum of Post & Riposte.

Illustrations from Edward Sorel's Unauthorized Portraits:

  • Tennessee Williams and Marlon Brando

  • Noël Coward

  • Tom Wolfe

  • Henry Kissinger as Narcissus

  • "And They're Both Called King"

    Atlantic covers by Edward Sorel:

  • "Who Killed Hollywood?" January, 1978

  • "Translating the Bible: An Endless Task," February, 1985

  • "Joe College: Memories of a Fifties Education," December, 1987.

  • Edward Sorel In the introduction to the Politics section of Unauthorized Portraits you describe your "tendency" as a child "to draw pictures by myself in a corner." How did your interest in art first manifest itself?

    When I was nine years old I got pneumonia. In those days pneumonia was a serious illness -- there was no penicillin. My pneumonia laid me up for about a year, and all I could do to entertain myself was draw pictures. Fortunately, in those days shirts came back from the Chinese laundry with white cardboard in them -- that was my paper. I had a box of crayons and that was it; by the time I got well I was an artist. As to why I continued to make pictures, I suppose all artists want to create a world other than the one that they're living in. I certainly did.

    There was also much conflict in my family. Especially along political lines. It was a very large family; half were communists and the other half just wished that we could all get together without discussing Stalin or Trotsky. I just found all of it very unpleasant, so I made my pictures and let the grownups yell away.

    Did you use drawing as a kind of peace-making gesture?

    No, it was a way of being off by myself and not getting involved with my family. I am essentially a solitary person, I think. I work at home with my wife, who is a writer; she works in one half of our loft, I work in the other. I'm happiest when I'm working.

    What type of research and preparation do you usually undertake before doing a new caricature?

    The first thing that you learn when you do caricatures is that you cannot do one from a single photograph. It's absolutely essential that you have several views of the face before you attempt a caricature. Sometimes a photograph doesn't look like the person. You have to have a profile, three-quarter, full face, and then you can really see where the unusual features are.

    Obviously, if you're doing a caricature from life it's very different, but I'd say almost all the caricatures I've drawn have been from photographs.

    How important do you think visual commentary on society and politics is, as opposed to written commentary?

    In the early part of this century, and in the late nineteenth century, pictures on the editorial page always reflected the viewpoint of the newspapers themselves. The editorial artist was essentially a hired hand. After the Second World War, when the concept of the op-ed page in newspapers came about, writers were encouraged to espouse views that were contrary to the newspaper's. But artists were never given that same opportunity. To this day, the only editorial cartoonist who is able to draw whatever he wants without first clearing it with an editorial board is Herblock, of The Washington Post. Every other newspaper cartoonist, without exception, has to show what he's going to do in advance.

    To answer your question, though: the visual has a different kind of power than the written word. Everyone accepts that Thomas Nast brought down the Tweed ring with his cartoons (which is not quite accurate; his pictures appeared in conjunction with editorials). But I think that pictures do have a kind of visceral power. That's why we don't have artists on the op-ed page saying whatever they damn please.

    You describe yourself in the Unauthorized Portraits introduction as "someone who feels he's still learning how to draw." How would you describe the evolution of your artistic style over the years?

    Well, I hope my drawing has become more spontaneous. When I started out I was a decorative illustrator, which means that I was working in a style that was acceptable to mainstream taste. It was impersonal -- sweet, cute, the kind of thing you used to see on record-album covers in the sixties. It was ... decorative.

    It seems to me that all the artists that I admire -- Rembrandt, for example -- got freer and more spontaneous as they got older. It corresponds to being more confident in their art.

    The big problem for me that remains is composition. Composition, unlike the other aspects, never gets easier.
    See a larger version of Woody Allen and Mia Farrow.
    Woody Allen and Mia Farrow
    Illustration for a review of Woody
    Allen's movie Husbands and Wives in
    Rolling Stone, October 1992.
    In a book review you wrote last year for The New York Times (of Ben Katcher's collected comic strips) you expressed a passion for German Expressionism. When did you discover the German Expressionists?

    I really can't remember exactly. It may have been when I picked up a magazine called Simplicissimus. It was a German humor magazine from, I think, the turn of the century. The drawings were, in large part, German Expressionism. There have never been better magazine illustrations.

    Did these kinds of illustrations inspire you early on?

    No, I started out as a hack without any personal vision at all. What I wanted was simply to freelance. I didn't like having a job. The only way you could freelance was by doing decorative illustration for record albums, book jackets, and, occasionally, magazines. I evolved largely because of Vietnam, which made us all very very angry. I wanted to express my opinions and couldn't do that in the sweet, decorative style that I had been working in.

    Does the publication of your drawings (you describe them in your book's introduction as cynical and sometimes "deliberately hurtful") ever cause trouble for you?

    No, the only negative is that I frequently do what I think is a devastating caricature of a political figure and he ends up writing me asking for the original drawing. Makes you realize how utterly innocuous you are. That's the only kind of trouble I've had.

    You describe a few of your drawings in Unauthorized Portraits as having been modeled after drawings by the nineteenth-century caricaturists Gustave Doré and Honorer Daumier. To what extent has your approach to cartooning been influenced by such figures?

    Well, I didn't model -- I plagiarized. There are some pictures that are so familiar to people that you can easily parody them. It's easy, for example, with Rembrandt's Anatomy Lesson -- all those doctors studying a corpse. You do a parody of that and everybody gets it right away. Or Washington crossing the Delaware, or Daumier's Narcissus. I once did Henry Kissinger as Narcissus for a review of his autobiography, using Daumier's drawing of Narcissus.

    Did you specifically study cartooning of the nineteenth century?

    Well, yes. It's just a question of studying your betters, that's all. Not studying them necessarily for swipe material, but studying them because of their skill at drawing. You keep learning from guys who are better than you.

    Your work is rich with historical and literary allusions. Does this reflect a voracious reading habit?

    I'm a reader of periodicals -- I'm a short attention-span reader. I very seldom read novels anymore, unless they're novels written by friends. I'm ashamed to think of how few books I do read. I draw a lot. When I'm not eating or with friends, I'm working, all the time. And most of my friends are freelancers. We're always behind schedule, always working. When I do things that are pleasurable, like reading a book, I feel guilty -- "I shouldn't be doing this; I should be working."

    You've indicated that your interest in political cartooning waxes and wanes depending on how agitated you feel about the contemporary political scene. Are there currently issues that you feel especially strongly about and are inspired to address as a cartoonist? Or is your interest currently focused elsewhere?

    Well, I'm one of those who regard organized religion as a dangerous force. I try whenever possible to do anti-clerical cartoons. The only place that will print them is The Nation, which has a very small circulation and pays almost nothing.

    You've recently written a children's book. How does doing a children's book compare with doing the type of individual drawings that you usually do?

    I much prefer hit-and-run: doing one drawing and finishing the assignment. Sustained projects drive me up the wall, and children's books take forever. One children's book took me about six months, I think. The advantage to children's books is that you can try out new techniques.

    Do they help make you more spontaneous?

    Yes. This might be a good time to explain why it's so important to be spontaneous when you're doing comic art. Anything that's labored ceases to be funny. It only works if it looks easy. A good example is Fred Astaire's dancing. I think the reason that we enjoy it so is because it looks so effortless. The fact that it took hours and hours of painful rehearsal is immaterial as long as the finished product looks effortless. It's the same with my drawing. I do many, many preliminary sketches, but as long as the finished product looks like it was easy to do, it's successful. It's very hard.

    You said in The New York Times in 1993 that cartooning was "a dying field," because magazines were losing their audience to computers and television. Do you still feel that way?

    I suspect the big problem is that my generation is the last generation really likely to do well-drawn cartoons. I taught for a year, and I didn't see the young people -- the twenty-year olds -- developing any skills at all in drawing. It's sort of a lost art: you don't find anybody writing waltzes anymore, either.
    See a larger version of Edward Sorel's The Anatomy Lesson.

    See Rembrandt's original.

    Anatomy Lesson Spoof

    A takeoff on Rembrandt's The Anatomy
    Audience Magazine,
    July-August 1972.
    It does seem that the space given over to cartoons in newspapers and magazines is shrinking.

    Shrinking, and also the kind of drawing that you see in newspapers and magazines seems to be such hard-hedged stuff that has nothing to do with drawing. The illustrations are very photographic. Artists, instead of doing what the camera cannot do, seem to be imitating what the camera does. It's very odd.

    What about art schools?

    One of the things that I'm still angry about after half a century is how little I learned in art school about drawing. I'm furious about it, and I'm sure things are no better now. The only person I know who's really teaching drawing is James McMullen, who does all those Lincoln Center posters in New York. He teaches at the School of Visual Arts. But for the most part drawing is not taught anymore. I don't know, maybe animation will turn out to be the last stronghold for drawing, but it probably won't be my kind of drawing.

  • See illustrations from Edward Sorel's Unauthorized Portraits.

  • More Books & Authors features in Atlantic Unbound.

  • Discuss this interview in the Arts & Literature forum of Post & Riposte.

    Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.