Monday, March 11, 2013

The Charles Addams Catalogue Raisonné

The Tee and Charles Addams Foundation Catalogue Raisonné Committee is currently in the process of putting together a complete listing of the works of Charles Addams (1912-1988)! To my knowledge, there has scarcely ever been a catalogue raisonné devoted to the work of a single cartoonist. Well, there was a volume in 1924 by Albert M. Cohn devoted to all the works of George Cruikshank, although I consider Cruikshank more of a caricaturist than a cartoonist in the modern sense. At any rate, even if you count the 1924 book, this new Addams volume is destined to make history!

So where is all the fanfare, the enthusiasm, the unbounded excitement for a forthcoming collection featuring all the known work of cartoonist Charles Addams? It seems to me that one of the most preposterously ambitious projects currently underway in the world of cartooning has not yet received the publicity it deserves. In short, I am puzzled why there is not a little more buzz about this extraordinary undertaking.

The Tee and Charles Addams Foundation Announces its Charles Addams Catalogue Raisonné
In recent years, the trend we have seen quite often in the cartooning world is the complete chronological publication of comic strips. These collections have become essential, preserving the great newspaper comic strips of yesteryear at a time when the entire medium is in sharp and perhaps permanent decline. But these reprint collections are not the same thing as catalogues raisonnés. A catalogue raisonné generally includes everything: early works, preliminary sketches, advertising, unpublished works, alternative versions, and presentation drawings, to name just a few. Putting such a catalogue together is a much more complicated project than merely reprinting the artist's collected published works, itself no mean feat. To produce a complete catalogue raisonné, years of dedicated research are required.

This, needless to say, is very challenging. Not only is it crucial to include every possible work by the artist, it is also essential not to allow questionable or spurious works into the catalogue. Note that the Foundation does not provide an authentication service. Nevertheless, the Foundation will most definitely be deciding what to include and not to include in the catalogue raisonné, which is just about tantamount to authentication. The task is particularly daunting when cataloguing cartoonists, who tend to be somewhat prolific. How is the Committee going to handle the innumerable sketches of Wednesday out there that Addams made for friends and fans? What of all the pencil roughs, the juvenilia, and unfortunately the unscrupulous fakes? The Tee and Charles Addams Foundation has an advantage. No doubt they have access to the artist's personal archives. If Addams kept careful records, that will certainly help a great deal. It is hard to imagine a catalogue raisonné being put together today without the resources of a foundation dedicated to the promotion of the artist. (Today's artists, by the way, would do well to maintain meticulous documentation of their own output for the benefit of future art historians.)

Catalogues raisonnés are often not the most attractive books, although they certainly can be and perhaps should be. Because their purpose is to document every single work by an artist, there are generally many illustrations that are quite small and often in black and white. Each illustration must be accompanied by somewhat dry information regarding medium, size, title, publication history, and perhaps provenance. From what I can see, the Foundation takes its work very seriously and seems to be in an excellent position to do all of this.

Where is the market for an exhaustive listing of a cartoonist's works? Well, there's your humble blogger, for one, the obvious answer. Put me down for a copy. Perhaps you too, if you've read this far. A few diehard fans, collectors, and university libraries will spring for it, I'm sure. This project really doesn't strike me as a moneymaker, but it is something that should greatly enhance the prestige of its subject, already a towering figure among 20th century cartoonists. It also represents sound scholarship, which is exactly what this field needs.

Do other cartoonists deserve a catalogue raisonné? Many do, in my opinion, but the underlying economics of such a project make it extremely unlikely that even a few will see fruition. In fact, I think it's safe to say that such a thing is only going to come about if there is already a foundation or a museum dedicated to a particular cartoonist, and it's going to happen most likely when that institution is already engaged in a long-term project to catalogue the artist's complete oeuvre. It probably helps a great deal that "The Addams Family" franchise has produced significant income over the years from television, movies, books, and a stage musical.

As an aside, for years the Saul Steinberg Foundation has been asking collectors to send them photos or scans of Steinberg's works. The Saul Steinberg Foundation's activities are really no different from the Tee and Charles Addams Foundation's, except that they have not announced plans for a catalogue raisonné. But a lot of the groundwork has already been done if they should ever choose to make that commitment.

I would love to be able to tell you that I personally have amassed a large number of Addams originals for the Foundation to evaluate, but that is sadly not the case. The truth is that when Addams was alive and you could buy as many published originals of his as you wanted, I was just a student and couldn't bring myself to fork over the money for even one little masterpiece. It was a missed opportunity, of course, one that I still regret.

What I do have in my possession today are two drawings that Addams did in books, both in copies of Nightcrawlers, as it turns out, his 1957 cartoon collection. Both were purchased on eBay. So I sent photos of them to the Foundation. Then I decided the photos were too yellow, so I reshot them. It's a good thing I did, too, because the first set had arrived with a distorted aspect ratio and were unusable. (Thanks, AOL!) Anyway, here are the better photos of my only two Addams works.

This first copy of Nightcrawlers was given to someone as a gift in 1958. Later in 1982 it was signed by Charles Addams with an original drawing of Wednesday. Any number of such drawings of Wednesday are out there in many variations. I'm sure the Committee will have its hands full with these.

Charles Addams, Wednesday, 1982 in Nightcrawlers, 1957

Charles Addams,  Nightcrawlers, 1957 with the above drawing of Wednesday

This next one I find more interesting. A different copy of Nightcrawlers was signed and inscribed by Addams in 1957 with a drawing of Uncle Fester's head as an orbiting Sputnik. Sputnik was launched on October 4, 1957 and caused no little panic in the West. Addams was being very timely.
Charles Addams, Fester Head Sputnik in Orbit, Inscribed "For Frank/with no sputniks/best regards/Chas Addams/New York/1957" in Nightcrawlers, 1957

Once I got my act together and submitted these photos, the Foundation accepted them graciously and was quite friendly in their response. I would strongly urge all collectors, dealers, and museums with original works by Charles Addams to submit them today to the Foundation to assist it in this historic undertaking.

So when is a catalogue raisonné complete? New Addams works will certainly surface for decades to come. How does one know when the job is done?

I don't think it's possible to know. While the past history of catalogues raisonnés often involved small press runs of expensive books, it seems reasonable to assume that many future such enterprises will be web-based. While I know nothing of the Foundation's specific plans regarding the Charles Addams catalogue raisonné, an online version could potentially address several vexing problems. The small thumbnail illustrations that characterize many of the duller catalogues raisonnés could be avoided in favor of large, brilliant images. It's technically feasible to do this online right now. Editors of the catalogue raisonné would not have to worry about a new work coming to light the day after going to press. Instead, an online catalogue raisonné could be updated continually, with new works added and any works cast into doubt removed. The latest scholarship could be incorporated and data updated as needed. Finally, the online catalogue raisonné need not entirely preclude the publication of a smart-looking print edition.

February 6, 2015 Update:  Bookseller Images

Black Cat Books, Sag Harbor, New York

August 16, 2015 Update:  When I published this blog post in 2013, I had no idea that the Catalogue Raisonné project was already a decade old!
Announcement published in the New Yorker
September 22, 2003, page 146

Note:  After you submit your stunning photos or scans to the Tee and Charles Addams Foundation, you are always welcome to share original Addams art with the world here if you like!



  1. Bravo! Excellent post, thanks for highlighting this incredible project. I would of course low to see something similar someday for Searle's oeuvre - for now the Perpetua blog aims to be a digital catalogue raisonne

    1. I'd love to see such an endeavor for Ronald Searle too. I think you, Matt, more than anyone understand how enormous such a project would be. You have been writing and revising your Searle blog since 2006 without running out of topics. Perpetua is likely to remain the most comprehensive and accessible Searle archive we have.

      A catalogue raisonné for Searle in print is probably too much to hope for. Who would be able to devote the resources to producing it? Obvious candidates are you, the Wilhelm Busch Museum, Searle's estate, and less likely the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum of Ohio State University, or possibly some international combination of these. I believe a print version would have to be in multiple volumes. Wouldn't it be great if the Wilhelm Busch Museum published a monthly--or even quarterly--facsimile Searle sketchbook! Each could have a little appendix with the published versions of the work. I'd subscribe today.

      Oops! You caught me daydreaming!