LAKEVILLE — Etienne Delessert is not pleased with the state of political cartoons — or politics for that matter. The celebrated graphic illustrator, whose works have appeared on the pages of The Atlantic, Le Monde, and The New York Times, charged cartoonists and artists of failing in their most important duty. “If you wish to be a good cartoonist,” he said, “you must get angry.”
In a presidential race which has been anything but dull, there is certainly plenty of material. What is lacking, Delessert believes, is the latitude artists once had to make provocative statements. Large illustrations are disappearing from leading newspapers and magazines, and where art remains, Delessert finds it uninspiring.
“In the New York Times, the art has become so flat and banal,” Delessert said, shrugging. “Worst of all is The New Yorker.”
Having always thought of The New Yorker as impenetrably smart and eclectic (to the point where I’d rarely open an issue) I asked, “You don’t find them edgy at all?”
Delessert scoffed, “Perhaps they are — but they’re edgy in the most velvety way.”
It was a grim diagnosis for a profession I one day hope to join. As a second-year graphic design student myself, I was loathe to think I was simply born at the wrong time.
But rather than yearn for better days, Delessert pointed out what he considers “spectacular” political illustration in foreign countries. In France, the daily newspaper Le Monde hosts large illustrations, which frequently push the boundaries of what is politically correct. Charlie Hebdo famously takes its statements even further, often to the ire of those in the punchline.
“Where would you ever see that in the United States?” Delessert exclaimed. Leafing through a large volume of his own political illustrations, he paused on one piece, where a raven pecks at the half-buried bodies of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. “I could never get that published here,” he said. “Not now. Not today.”
It is true that many of Delessert’s provocative watercolor cartoons would be considered politically incorrect. According to many liberals, as well as voters for the famously iconoclastic Donald Trump, the fear of causing offense is stifling free speech.
“It is certainly a problem,” said Delessert. “But students, and I think everyone, should try to know why something is offensive to you. You must think more deeply about these issues — otherwise others will choose your opinions for you.”
It became clear that Delessert believes that this is precisely what cartoonists must do: force their audience to think more deeply. His lush, mysterious, often strange illustrations do just that. Even those which are not at all political are startling; Delessert’s numerous children’s books contain some of the artist’s most bizarre yet compelling work.
“I think children should be surprised. It’s not necessary that they understand, but what we must do is open the gates to being curious.”
Can the children handle it? “Of course! They’re far smarter than people think. In many ways they don’t get enough credit.”
Whether Delessert is telling stories to children or to readers of the New York Times, the process is largely the same. “I always have an underlying message, and they may not always agree. But there is importance behind these illustrations.”
—The Lakeville Journal
LAKEVILLE — Istvan Banyai doesn’t like it when editors change his drawings. Least of all if they don’t know what they’re talking about.
As he leafed through decades of his meticulously detailed illustrations, of presidents, cartoon characters, and provocatively-dressed women, Banyai paused, and tapped his computer screen.
“This one, I think, they ruined,” he said, with a grimace. As though the insult occurred yesterday, he exclaimed, “When I submit these drawings, they are my absolute best attempt, and I truly believe it’s good, or I wouldn’t send it in the first place. For an editor, or anyone else, to tell me, ‘change this, change that’ — it’s insulting.”
Pausing for a moment, Banyai shrugged and said, “It’s like asking a chef to remove a spice from his food. Without the spice, it’s no longer the same dish.”
The cover in question was for the Atlantic Monthly’s 2009 fiction issue, and depicted a man reading a book, with novels and famous artistic works scattered around him. In the center of the image, a bright fireplace commands the eye.
“They said, change the color of the type, make the walls bright red,” said Banyai. “And so I did, because you have no choice. But the cover that went to print was not as good as what I sent them. The colors are wrong, and the fireplace doesn’t stand out like I intended.”
Banyai received similar requests for countless submissions; the New Yorker frequently rejected or significantly altered Banyai’s most edgy illustrations.
The money wasn’t good either — making Banyai skeptical of whether it was even possible today for a graphic illustrator to sustain themselves on freelance work. While pay has increased slightly for submissions, it has not kept pace with inflation. “In 1980 a New Yorker cover went for $4,500,” Banyai said. “Today, decades later, it’s $5,000. You can’t support children with wages like that.”
Banyai’s wife Kati entered her husband’s studio, espresso and macaroons in hand. “You have to understand,” she said, “he says these things, and they are all true, but he is also a very positive man who loved what he did.”
In her interjections, often shouted from an adjacent room, Kati was quick to temper her husband’s strongest statements. Yes, it was trying at times, but Banyai immensely enjoyed his work. No, the youth of today aren’t failing us, but our universities are. No, art is not simply going downhill. Of course not.
Her husband would always agree, albeit sometimes begrudgingly.
Banyai’s meticulous work, too, betrayed his true love for his craft. After a phone call or email from a client (most frequently The New Yorker and Playboy Magazine), preliminary sketches were sent back and forth until they were approved. Banyai carefully produces his final lines in pencil, and then scans them onto his computer. Digitally, the lines are made darker, until they resemble those of a pen. Finally, color and sometimes typography are added.
As he explained his process, Banyai paused. “This is boring — are you sure you want to write about this?”
Banyai’s work was then passed from the art director of the publication to the editor — the pivotal gatekeeper whose opinion either sends Banyai’s work to print, or begins a long series of excruciating edits. According to Banyai, art directors’ authority pales in comparison to that of editors, even when it comes to artwork.
“The people making these decisions don’t always recognize good work. They’re intelligent people, often, but they haven’t been trained like an art director. And when I resist what I think are bad changes, I’m called uncooperative.”
Banyai smiled. “When that happens they usually just print a photograph instead.”
Surrounded by a lifetime of work, much of which went through this grueling process, Banyai had no regrets. “I really did like doing it, which is why I did it for such a long time.”
The illustrator and his wife have downsized from an apartment in Manhattan, and now live on a quiet street in Lakeville. Instead of grappling with editors, Banyai is attempting to organize and reduce what seem to be endless piles of artwork he has produced over his career.
After a 2013 exhibition at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., the illustrator now has stacks of his artwork, reprinted on postcard-sized paper.
In their endeavor to organize, I was handed an armful of miniature Banyai work. Delighted, I’m happy to help in any way I can.
—The Lakeville Journal
I have two types of grandparents. I have the cultural, Paris-going pair, with a grand piano in the living room and a New Yorker in the driveway. My other pair has a television in place of a piano, a manicured lawn next to the driveway, and a staunch Republican voting record.
The two families, separated by two and a half states, both live in comfortable wealth; not too much, not too little, so they can afford to think about money only when buying something expensive. Both pairs speak longingly of long-lost dogs. They speak of life in Brooklyn Heights and Massachusetts suburbs. You guess which one’s which.
The piano playing pair are fond of telling the story of how a truck driver leaned out of his window, while waiting at a red light on California’s portion of Route 66, to exclaim in heavily accented English, “It’s a Buggy! It’s a Buggy!” (Referring to the car, my grandfather explains.) My mother was in the Buggy, headed across the country for Brooklyn Heights.
“Where are you headed?” asks the driver.
“Brooklyn,” replies my grandfather.
The driver looks worried—until it was revealed that my future mother was not headed for Brooklyn (circa 1960), but rather Brooklyn Heights. Nice Brooklyn.
I have heard this story seven-thousand-six-hundred-twenty-two-times. My aunt badgers my grandfather: “Why don’t you ever tell stories about your children? It’s always Muffin [the dog] or Brooklyn or Paris. I’ve never heard a story about one of your children.” (Emphasis included.) After this bi-annual accusation (Thanksgiving, Christmas) there is a period of reminiscing. There was the time when my uncle won a motorbike, and my grandmother forced him to sell it, but not before my mother had ridden its 20-mile-per-hour glory all over the block. There was the time when another uncle escaped his bath and ran through the streets, naked and laughing. Then there was that time in Brooklyn Heights—
“No!” my aunt says. “Your children, Richard.”
My grandparents pause. They’ve run out of stories. The clock points to 10 o’clock, and my uncle comes back from the kitchen with a tray of desserts. The fire dies. We slowly drag our feet back to the present.