Friday, April 18, 2014

Shore Leave: Constantin Alajálov New Yorker Cover Art

In 1945, merely a couple of weeks after Victory in Europe Day, the New Yorker published this cover art by the gifted Russian artist Constantin Alajálov. The artwork was just sold on eBay for $5,000. The seller did a very good job describing the artwork and the specific moment in history it evokes. Let's first take a look at the sale and the seller's item description:

Constantin Alajálov, Original cover artwork, The New Yorker, May 26, 1945

Constantin Alajálov, Original cover artwork, The New Yorker, May 26, 1945

Constantin Alajálov, Framed original cover artwork, The New Yorker, May 26, 1945

Constantin Alajálov's signature

Constantin Alajálov, Detail of original cover artwork, The New Yorker, May 26, 1945

Constantin Alajálov, Detail of original cover artwork, The New Yorker, May 26, 1945

[End of eBay listing]

One thing that can be said for Alajálov's New Yorker covers is that they don't simply meet our expectations. The best ones possess an uncanny ability to surprise and delight. Imagine it was your assignment to design a magazine cover that would hit newsstands a couple of weeks after V-E Day. How would you illustrate the excitement and expectancy for a return to normal peacetime pleasures at a time when the nation was still technically mobilized for war? Would you set your cover at a military base? Somewhere in Europe? At sea? When you consider these possibilities, the simple idea of depicting numerous enlisted men and WAC's in uniform on shore leave enjoying the mundane delights of a day at the zoo is truly inspired.

Constantin Alajálov, The New Yorker, May 26, 1945

The composition could not have been an easy one to create. What could be more challenging than painting an aerial view of a crowd scene? The technical challenges have all been met splendidly, of course. Yet the image overwhelms the viewer not with its artistic bravura, but with its normalcy. This is a celebration of soldiers with nothing to do but await their return to civilian life while actually enjoying a spring day at the zoo. How sublime!

So the eBay seller is right, at least in part, in saying "The real subject is not the zoo." But the zoo is extremely important as the setting, and it is not just any zoo; it's the Central Park Zoo in New York City. The cover's view of the seal pool faces to the southwest giving the composition strong diagonals. A couple of vintage photos show the site as it was:

The seal pool, Central Park Zoo, 1940's, facing west.
The umbrellas in the background can be seen on the upper right side of the Alajálov cover.
Photo from the City of New York's Parks and Recreation Department

The seal pool in the Central Park Zoo, facing to the west, ground level.
The aviary on the left is a prominent feature of the New Yorker cover.
Photo from the Wurts Bros. Collection from The New York Public Library

The approximate view of the Central Park Zoo as seen on Google Earth today

Constantin Alajálov, The New Yorker, May 26, 1945
Constantin Alajálov, Original cover artwork, The New Yorker, May 26, 1945

Note:  Read more on Constantin Alajálov here.

Additional examples of original New Yorker cover art may be seen here.

See older posts in celebration of on National Library Week here.

Posts about Passover may be found here.


Thursday, April 17, 2014

Liana Finck's A Bintel Brief

One of the pleasures of this month's MoCCA Fest was meeting New Yorker cartoonist and first-time graphic novelist Liana Finck. She had copies of her soon-to-be-published book A Bintel Brief with her. My personalized copy of this intriguing work is proudly shown below.

You can help celebrate the official release of this book on Friday evening April 18 at BookCourt in Brooklyn. Ms. Finck will appear in conversation with cartoonist Liza Donnelly.

Liana Finck's A Bintel Brief:  Love and Longing in Old New York (2014) file image

My copy of Liana Finck's A Bintel Brief:  Love and Longing in Old New York (2014) inscribed with a self-portrait "To Stephen/--Liana."

Note:  Find out what else I saw at MoCCA Fest here.

Read more about Liza Donnelly here.

See posts in celebration of National Library Week here.

Timely posts about Passover may be found here.


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

My Moment with Bob Mankoff

Last month I attended a signing event at a Manhattan Barnes & Noble for Bob Mankoff's new memoir How about Never--Is Never Good for You?: My Life in Cartoons. This is the first time I got to see the New Yorker's cartoon editor. It came amidst a major marketing blitz for the book which included a segment on "60 Minutes" just two days before. Mr. Mankoff spoke with candor and humor about cartoons, the New Yorker, and what he does for a living. I arrived ten minutes early and he was already addressing the audience.

Bob Mankoff's signing event at Barnes & Noble, 86th Street

When it was time to introduce myself at the signing, I could think of two major points that might be relevant to him. One was that I have been a finalist four times running in his Moment magazine Cartoon Caption Contest, although I have never been a winner. The other is that I am the perpetrator of this blog in which New Yorker cartoons are a frequent subject. Naturally, I decided to go with both.

This blog, it turns out, is not anywhere on Bob Mankoff's radar, at least not by name, and who could forget the name? So much for my status as a minor celebrity. The Moment Cartoon Caption Contest is, of course, his baby, although I would not expect any name recognition of the contest finalists. Whether my success as a finalist in four straight contests is a unique achievement I don't know. What I do know is that I am not a four time "winner" and may never win the contest at all. Nevertheless, that's what he inscribed; I have it in writing. It's actually nice to have the winning inscription, even if it is in error. Now Bob Mankoff has given me a brand new goal I can work towards: winning the Moment magazine Cartoon Caption Contest four times. Then his inscription will prove to have been prescient. I guess I'll keep you posted.

My copy of How About Never--Is Never Good for You?:  My Life in Cartoons (2014) is inscribed with a self portrait "For Stephen/the 4 time/Moment cartoon /caption contest/winner!/Bob Mankoff." If only it were true!

Signed copies of the memoir were still available at the 86th Street Barnes & Noble when I last checked. They do not contain the self-portrait.
Barnes & Noble still had a stack of autographed copies on a recent visit.
A bookstore copy of How About Never--Is Never Good for You?:  My Life in Cartoons (2014) with Bob Mankoff's signature.

Note:  You can read more about the New Yorker's cartoon editor Bob Mankoff here and, if you insist, here.

The history of my involvement in the Moment magazine Cartoon Caption Contest is in the archives here.

Posts in celebration of National Library Week may be found here.

Posts about Passover may be found here.


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Dept. of Understatement

The following Newsbreak was published in the New Yorker in 1956 and is today rescued from obscurity here in honor of Tax Day. Sixty years ago, Barium Steel was a Fortune 500 company. Now it seems to be gone, perhaps on account of bad writing. Corporations still pay taxes, don't they?

The New Yorker, February 18, 1956, page 62

Note:  Read more posts on taxes here.

See older posts in celebration of on National Library Week here.

Posts about Passover may be found here.


Monday, April 14, 2014

More from the Library of Ronald Searle

This fanciful drawing by Ronald Searle was created on an envelope for a charity auction. The auction was conducted on eBay back in 2007, but I don't believe it's been seen anywhere online since then. Happy National Library Week!

Ronald Searle, Dead Dog Stories, 2007

Note:  Read more of my blog posts on Ronald Searle here.

See what the Ronald Searle Tribute Blog has to say about Searle's dogs (and cats) here.

You may read older posts in celebration of National Library Week here. The are some of my favorites.

Posts about Passover may be found here.


Sunday, April 13, 2014

From the Library of Charles Dana Gibson

It's National Library Week! By all means support your local library, but let's not neglect our private, personal libraries. There's no sanctuary like a room filled with books. Here's an illustration by Charles Dana Gibson set in just such a household library. It is abundant with masterly strokes of the pen. His popular Gibson Girl is here a widow dressed in black, poor thing, but she can still find solace in books.

Charles Dana Gibson, A Widow and her Friends:  She Looks for Relief Among Some of the Old Ones
The Walt Reed Illustration Archive
Modern Graphic History Library
Washington University Library

Note:  Read more on Charles Dana Gibson here.

See older posts in celebration of on National Library Week here.

Read posts about Passover here.


Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Dream House: Constantin Alajálov New Yorker Cover Art

Sure, Constantin Alajálov's New Yorker cover of May 15, 1954 is in its essence a comment on postwar real estate development, but it doesn't depict a typical suburban tract. Instead, we get to see this average-looking couple's dream house and--surprise!--it's modernist. Alajálov has used his prodigious skills as an illustrator not only to show us what can't be shown in any other medium, but also to subvert our conventional expectations. What a fine illustration this is!
Constantin Alajálov, Framed original artwork, The New Yorker, May 15, 1954

Back in 2007 when this original artwork was sold, I was a novice at preserving online auction sales records although I did make one or two halting attempts. This blog did not exist in those days, of course; I was copying the sales records for myself and I knew better than to try my hand at anything so preposterous as writing a blog. This Alajálov piece is one of those rare eBay auctions from that time period that I did manage somehow to archive, unnecessarily, as it turns out. The auction house's own online archive still records the sale. A bit of redundancy is good for the internet, no?

The eBay record:

 The Pook & Pook auction house record, which includes the 22% buyer's premium:

Constantin Alajálov, The New Yorker, May 15, 1954

Note:  Am I alone in this? It occurs to me that there must be other folks with a similar obsessive bent and perhaps a better track record than mine at preserving old auction sales of vintage illustration art. If you are likewise afflicted and you'd like to share your archival records of relevant auctions here, please get in touch.

Constantin Alajálov was no one-hit wonder. See other blog posts about him here.

Would you care to see more original New Yorker cover art? You've come to the right place! Check out the archives here.


Mixed Reactions: Constantin Alajálov, New Yorker Cover Art

Constantin Alajálov's New Yorker cover for the week of March 21, 1936 is surely a bit of an oddity. The piano recital, on the surface, is unlike any we have seen. The performer is bent over the piano with great intensity and concentration, and seemingly has been for some time in this all-Bach program. The audience is divided into three camps. The majority have already left even as the performance continues, an almost impossibly rude outcome. Yet a small core of loyalists has migrated right up to the stage, almost equally unbelievable given the formality of the setting. Their facial expressions differ, but they seem to be either giving the performance their rapt attention or they are entirely lost in the music. A third contingent of audience members are on their way out, yet they linger, focussed not on the exits as we might expect but on the concert even though it has gone on for too long. What a wonderful piece this is! What a metaphor for our differing responses to the fine arts!

The original artwork is available from Grapefruit Moon Gallery for $8,500. The price is fairly steep, but this is really a one-of-a-kind piece.

Constantin Alajálov, Original cover art,
The New Yorker, March 21, 1936

Constantin AlajálovThe New Yorker, March 21, 1936

Constantin Alajálov, Detail of original cover art,
The New Yorker, March 21, 1936

Constantin Alajálov, Detail of original cover art,
The New Yorker, March 21, 1936

Constantin Alajálov's signature

Constantin Alajálov, Framed original cover art,
The New Yorker, March 21, 1936

Constantin Alajálov, Detail of framed original cover art,
The New Yorker, March 21, 1936

Constantin Alajálov, The New Yorker, March 21, 1936

Glenn Gould:  Bach's Goldberg Variations
1981 Studio Video

Note:  See this blog's other posts about Constantin Alajálov here.

Further examples of original New Yorker cover art may be seen here.


Friday, April 11, 2014

Standing Room Only: Constantin Alajálov New Yorker Cover Art

I'd love to claim credit for the "Standing Room Only" title of this New Yorker cover art by Constantin Alajálov, but it isn't mine. Someone at Swann Galleries came up with it, I suppose, when the catalogue for the January 20th Century Illustration sale was put together. New Yorker covers from this era don't have titles in the context of the magazine, which only started publishing cover titles on October 12, 1992 ("Malcolm X"), Tina Brown's second issue as editor. The New Yorker has maintained the practice since then and it can even be helpful with the more arcane covers. I suspect many of today's titles are coined by the editors and not the cover artists. New Yorker covers don't really need titles, of course, but of all the changes that have come to the magazine over the years, this one is pretty benign.

There is nothing benign in the countenances of the restaurant patrons shown waiting for a table. Note that their eyes are all wide open with fixed and icy stares, while the diners prolonging their evening are relaxed, jovial, and their eyes are closed. Only the maître d's eyes are half open. Note too how relaxed the postures of the diners are, while those waiting are standing rigidly. One of these men has clenched hands, which is contrasted with the relaxed and supple hand gestures of the diners. By the standards of the day, the main couple's leisurely cigarettes are not understood as a health hazard; the artist merely intends them to be irritating to the impatient throng.

Constantin Alajálov, Original cover artwork, The New Yorker, October 21, 1944
Inscribed "To Elinor/and Martin Bush/from/Alajálov."
Constantin Alajálov, The New Yorker, October 21, 1944
The catalogue cover lot, Swann Galleries, 20th Century Illustration, January 23, 2014
Image added April 14, 2014

Note:  Just in time for the tax season, here is Constantin Alajálov's 1937 New Yorker cover about the federal income tax.

Further examples of original New Yorker cover art may be seen here.


Thursday, April 10, 2014

My Entry in the New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest #422--Almost

For the second week in a row, I have forgotten to submit my entry to the New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest. I don't even have an excuse other than forgetfulness. My captions have only a very slight chance of advancing to finalist status, but when I don't enter the chance is zero.

Let me explain what I did here. I actually thought about the contest all week and I conceived only this one caption. I even filled out the entry form. I did everything but click the submit button. I often wait till the last minute hoping I'll somehow come up with a better idea, but that strategy backfired once again. So, for the second time in two weeks, I present only what would have been my entry in the caption contest. This is Contest #422 for the week of April 7, 2014. The drawing is by Benjamin Schwartz. This is what my caption was supposed to look like.
"I'm all done. You now have a paperless office."

April 14, 2014 Update:  The Finalists

Note: Last week when I forgot to submit my caption, a herd of rhinoceroses had taken over the local breakfast cafe. The finalists for Joe Dator's cartoon have now been announced. Of course, there might have been a different outcome if I had submitted a caption, but I seriously doubt it. In fact, I don't think I ever quite finished tweaking my caption. Anyway, you can see the results of Contest #421 here.

The last time a cartoon by Benjamin Schwartz was featured in the caption contest, I actually remembered to enter. See the outcome here.