I was recently invited to a Halloween masquerade party, and although I don’t typically care for Halloween itself I was excited to participate in the day’s carnivalesque. Halloween is, after all, the greatest surrealist experience, and as such, it seemed only fitting to turn to surrealist artists for masquerade inspiration. I didn’t turn to surrealist heavy weights like Magritte or even Picasso — I turned instead to little-known cartoonist Saul Steinberg.
I first came across Steinberg when I was in High School, a time when Magritte, Max Ernst and Vogue Magazine epitomized — in equal measure — fine art to me. Surrealism — its wrestling with rationality, unleashing “psychic automatism,” dismissing artistic conventions for radical, dream-like artistic exploration — matches the teenage psyche, and seeing Steinberg’s masks photographed by Inge Morath in a glossy magazine was, for me, pure artistic genius.
Years later, after shedding my interest in surrealism, Steinberg’s masks stuck with me. Perhaps that’s because Steinberg’s work is only a restrained surrealism. Looking at his masks series is like voyeuristically attending a zany New York dinner party in the 50’s. But unlike Luis Buñuel’s surrealist dinner party a la Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie, Steinberg’s work remains entirely rational. Yes, each mask enacts a character — much like the personas and characters we enact on a daily basis — that points to the disguises we use to hide the deep-seated secrets of the unconscious. But those secrets are never fully unleashed as they are in, say, ur-Surrealist Hieronymous Bosch’s paintings. Nor do they point to particular haunting psychological experiences as Frieda Kahlo’s self portraits do, or Dali’s dream-like landscapes. Instead, his characters, set in mundane surroundings like living rooms, an apartment entryways, the beach, suggest the magic of the everyday, an excuse for play. Steinberg’s is a way of looking at the world and discovering surrealist moments in the everyday. His masks are peculiar, but he leaves the frightening, uncanny and sinister for others. His is a light-hearted play.
In the 1960’s Steinberg wrote, “I am among the few who continue to draw after childhood has ended, continuing and perfecting childhood drawing — without the traditional interruption of academic training.” His, then, is an endless curiosity for viewing the world, “a way of reasoning on paper.” Halloween, too, is a similar childhood experience — a time to play. What better way to make sense of the day, to reason with it, than on paper, à la Steinberg.