By David Margolick
Early on in his profusely illustrious career, Edward Sorel neatly captured in a semi-autobiographical cartoon — it contains nine separate self-portraits — a brilliant artist’s eternal dilemma.
In the drawing, which ran in the Nation, he ponders why, away from their canvases, so many of the painters he so admires were schmucks. Rembrandt was a deadbeat and embezzled from his own son. Degas was an anti-Semite. Matisse looked sweet but dumped his wife once he hit it big. Picasso abandoned his friends during the Occupation. And on and on.
“Let’s face it…I’ll never be a great artist,” the cartoonist reluctantly concludes. “I’m just too nice a guy.”
Forty years or so have passed since Sorel drew those panels. And throughout it all his work has appeared, and continues to appear, in an astonishing array of publications — everything from the New Yorker, the Atlantic, Vanity Fair, and the New York Times Book Review to Screw. And in various public places, including the walls of the Waverly Inn.
Asked during his virtual appearance before the Silurians on February 16 where on that spectrum — from master to mensch — he’d position himself, Sorel replied with the twin trademarks of his work: honesty and astringency.
“Well, I certainly don’t place myself very high in the nice guy category,” he said. “I’ve done selfish things in my life. But for the 20th Century and even for the 21st I’d rate myself very highly as a cartoonist, as a caricaturist. I did become the artist I hoped to become.”
Sorel, 92, joked that he was now famous enough to be modest. But leafing through his new book, Profusely Illustrated: A Memoir, and beholding the extraordinary range of figures he’s honored (some) and skewered (far more) in his artworks over the past seven decades, it’s clear that in his case, modesty is simply inapt.
By any standard he’s one of the most important illustrators of his era, someone who, along with David Levine and a handful of others, helped resurrect and preserve a cherished tradition of naturalistic, exaggerated portraiture dating back to 19th Century France. “He is our Daumier, our Thomas Nast,” E.L. Doctorow once said of him.
But success, he told the group, did not come easily — he first had to unlearn everything he’d been taught in art school — or early for him. “I was in my late ’40s before I did drawings I like,” he said. “It wasn’t until the ’90s that I became the artist that I wanted to become.” And with the slow death of print journalism, he said, there’s no way latter-day Sorels will happen. “The kind of work I do already looks kind of 19th Century,” he lamented.
Sorel explains in his book that he did it for two principal reasons: first, to spare at least a few of his works from the oblivion that awaits most protest art and magazine work, and second, to document how, in his own mind, twelve consecutive Presidents helped lead to the “racist thug” who occupied the White House until January 20, 2021.
Oddly enough, for someone who thrived on Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, he did not go after Donald Trump very often — for a variety of reasons. There was despair, stemming from his lifelong belief that in the end, work like his really doesn’t help. And the belief that Trump was too dangerous to be funny. And a feeling that his style was insufficiently savage — that only a German Expressionist like George Grosz or Otto Dix would be up to the task.
Additionally, Barry Blitt of the New Yorker was already on the case. Blitt’s Trump covers for the magazine were so brilliant, Sorel said, that he stopped doing them himself. “I couldn’t compete with him,” he continued. “I didn’t know how to be funny about Trump. I couldn’t understand…I mean…he was so transparently a fraud.”
And, finally, Sorel said, he was too busy working on what he called “my first grownup book,” Mary Astor’s Purple Diary, his illustrated chronicle of a Hollywood starlet’s sex scandal in the 1930s. “I wasn’t going to sacrifice that book to Trump,” he explained. “It was pure selfishness on my part.”
He described the Astor book as “a biography written by a poor, lovesick old man.” “I saw her when I was ten years old in The Prisoner of Zenda and I just couldn’t believe anybody could be that beautiful,” he said. (But in the musical based on it that’s now in the works, he and Mary Astor live happily ever after.)
Nixon, whom he called “every cartoonist’s joy,” was his all-time favorite target. “The most untalented caricaturist could do Richard Nixon,” he said. “He was too easy. And so despicable.” But Profusely Illustrated is stuffed with stars as well as scoundrels. The drawing he’s proudest of, in fact, is one of Edward G. Robinson. “If I were a pharaoh, I’d ask to have it buried with me,” he wrote in the book.
Sorel, who was born and grew up in the Bronx, started drawing early. “I was a very promising nine-year-old,” he said. But at the High School of Music and Art and Cooper Union, he ran headlong into the prevailing artistic fashions of the day, abstraction and Cubism. It took him years, he said, to recapture his original instincts and learn how to draw. He confessed to stealing from a lot of artists — sometimes, quite literally — until he’d honed his craft.
But never, he said, did he labor under the illusion that great art changes minds. “I always knew that I couldn’t make a difference,” he said. “People like Jules Feiffer and I know that nobody’s going to listen to us. The only comfort the political cartoonist has is that it reassures the people out there who think exactly the way he does that they are not alone.”
By way of illustration, he described doing a cartoon for Horizon of Barry Goldwater, shown sitting backwards on a horse and clad in armor Attila the Hun might have worn. “I thought it was devastating,” he recalled. But after it ran, he learned Goldwater had inquired whether Sorel would sell him the original.