Laudatio von Dr. Christine Brinck

We are here to honour a cartoonist, who is considered a major force in the field of illustration for the past 50 years. Cartoonists are supposed to be funny people. Anybody who knows cartoonists, any cartoonist, knows that they are serious people, they never tell jokes, on the contrary they hate to be accosted by well meaning fans with the suggestion that they have a jolly idea for them to turn into a cartoon Cartoonists could be professors, at least that's what they project. They never look like Bohemian artists. R. O. Blechman is no exception to this, my rule. He looks like a gentleman, dresses like a gentleman and behaves like a gentleman. When I recently met him in person for the first time at his club in midtown Manhattan, I knew it was him: Tweed jacket, softspoken, intelligent, twinkle in the eye. The twinkle is important, Loriot has it too, Paul Flora has it, Peter Neugebauer has it, Saul Steinberg had it. Because cartoonists are so serious and so seriously intelligent, one has to be cautious around them.

When I was asked to give this laudationes – yes that's what it is called in English, like the Festschrift it has entered the language, I was livid. Blechman, me? He is a giant, he has been around for as long as I can think, he's illustrated New Yorker covers when I did not even know there was such a thing as the New Yorker. I was in awe, I still am. Only my good friend Joelle Chariau from the gallery Bartsch und Chariau in Munich encouraged me and told me what a wonderful man Bob was, not intimidating at all. Objectively speaking, Joelle, that might be true for you, but then you don't have to stand here and give a speech that is worthy of the astounding art of Bob Blechman.

But before we start praising Blechman's art, we have to tell you a little bit about the artist, the cartoonist R.O. Blechman. He was born in 1930 and refers to himself as depression baby. Next comes his name. For Germans it is crystal clear: BLECHMAN - the tin man - and the character with a funnel on his head from the Wizard of Oz comes to mind. In America though it's pronounced " Blackman", sounds like the black man -der schwarze Mann. In England, Blechman told me, they pronounce it "Bledgeman". We don't even want to know how the French or the Italians are distorting it. But when you have trouble with his last name think of R.O. - what does it stand for? No mystery, I can tell you, because Blechman himself revealed it in his auto biography. He had far too many names he did not like and was exposed to. His parents had named him Oscar, not exactly a childfriendly name, so his good aunt Kitty provided him with Buddy, as in Buddy Holly. However, Buddy he was only to the school door.

His teachers called him Robert, which was his middle name. After school it was back to Buddy, only briefly. At four o'clock each day little Oscar/Buddy/Robert/Buddy became Oysher, the Yiddish form of Oscar, when he was attending Hebrew school.

In his own words: "It started many years later, as a young man starting his career as a professional artist, that I decided once and for all to settle the matter of my first name. I decided to have none at all. I became R.O." And he felt safe from further transmutations.

However, before we get to R.O., the boy of the many names had to learn to read, fall in love with the movies, go to school in Flatbush, which is a part of Brooklyn. A place he seemed if not to loathe, ready to leave like so many other Brooklynites. (Maurice Sendak i.e. longed for Manhattan all his young life.) Before he could leave, he built his own shoe-box movies to entertain himself and read everything that came his way. After Pearl Harbor gas rationing forced the family to move to Manhattan where father owned a dry goods store. The city became his classroom, in his own words: "Manhattan taught lessons that would hold and nourish for a lifetime." He got to know the city he loves to this day, from the top of a bus and by foot, he explored every nook and cranny, listened to speakers of all ideological colours and learned all about art by looking at and touching objects from all the corners of the world and all ages in antique stores, as he learned all about architecture by riding the open buses. "Manhattan was my school, my alma mater, my magna mater and I absorbed the lessons with wonder and boundless gratitude."

The real school his mother wanted him to attend, the highly specialized High School of Music and Art, was not his idea. He thought he was gifted for neither, he managed the entrance examination notwithstanding. His artistic talent was not evident, the grades not overwhelming. Even though he loved watercolour, he had not an artistic career in mind. He was driven by ideas and feelings. And so he went off to College. Oberlin in Ohio was his destination.

Oberlin is a fine and well known liberal arts college. Its greatest flaw is its location. Ohio is for a true Manhattenite not exactly a hot spot. Young Bob, who majored in History and English found himself so deprived of sensual and visual pleasures that he wrote a letter to the great Saul Steinberg and asked for a drawing. He thought Oberlin could be better survived with a Steinberg on the wall. Young Blechman did of course not just send a postcard to the giant of cartoon land, he put his plea to the man in the form of a little handmade booklet.

He did not hear anything and had more or less forgotten all about his wish, when one day a package arrived for him. Blechman could at first not make a connection. He looked at the address, he looked at the sender's name and, lo and behold, it was from Steinberg. The reason why he could not make a connection is important for the understanding of his art: Steinberg's handwriting did not fit Steinberg the way Blechman expected it. Writing plays a huge role in Blechman's art, nothing not an iota is left to chance. His books as well as his single cartoons are not just about drawing, they are a composition of writing, lettering and drawing, of format, quality of paper and binding - nothing is unimportant.

When Maurice Sendak, the famous author and illustrator of children's books, visited Blechman in his studio, he asked him for a copy of his first book " The Juggler of our Lady", because he did not bring his own. Blechman presented him with a first edition - that to Sendaks surprise was dedicated to another Preisträger of your renowned cartoon prize - Ronald Searle. Blechman had never given it to Searle, because he was, as Sendak put it: "Dissatisfied with the look of his finely handwritten salutation on the flyleaf." The crooked lines and lettering should not fool anyone, the man is a stickler for perfection. His seemingly "unprofessional" writing, squiggly letter by letter is a tool, everything hinges on everything else. Even on the copyright page - that is the page normal readers ignore, where you get ISBN numbers and all sorts of information only few are interested in, he took the greatest care to make his point. The "All rights reserved" line is much less casual than other lines. It's a particular statement. "Lettering", as David Kamp recently wrote in the New York Times Book Review, "is the most underrated of cartoonist's skills." Blechman is a master of it. Have a look! The blue binding, the gold spine of the book with his sprawling calligraphy on it -all this is a preparation for what's inside. It's a quiet statement of his perception of this book as a Gesamtkunstwerk. Inside and outside are the two sides of the same coin. Other artists wax lyrical over Blechman's very first book that he did as a very young man, who was just out of college. That a 22 years old kid with so little experience should hit it big the first time round is short of a miracle. His portfolio after college consisted of political cartoons from the school newspaper, some posters, some illustrations for the literary magazine, some neatly sewn booklets and a picture story set in Rome and titled "Titus".

Titus was the result of a school assignment and got the draftsman a poor B minus. Did not sound like hot stuff for publishing, but a friend took it to Henry Holt anyway. They liked it enough to want something similar, with a holiday theme, "preferably Xmas". Blechman had no idea, but a friend did. He suggested the legend of "The Juggler of our Lady" . Blechman knew it, reread it and realized that it was exactly the story he wanted. The juggler desperately performing before an indifferent public reminded him of himself. He instantly felt that this was a perfect story to make into a graphic novel. He set down then and there at the kitchen table and got up after a long night's work, when it was finished. He took it to Holt, they liked it, published it and it got rave reviews and won the young graphic novelist great acclaim. Young Bob was drafted into the army though, before his "Juggler" was published and so his career as illustrator/artist/draftsman was cut short for a while. It turned out that the great - and unexpected, I dare say - success of the "Juggler" was a mixed blessing for the young man. He thought he had to produce more Jugglers. It took him a long time and a lot of therapy to overcome the first great success. Small wonder, to do your first book at age 22 and land an amazing instant hit, is a hard act to follow. But "Juggler" is already a complete Blechman. It is a graphic-novel and it shows how Blechman is at heart a filmmaker. An illustration for a poster announcing his lecture "From Print to Film" at the Boston Art Directors Club in 1978 shows the movement of the leg in a typical Blechman character with three legs; leg Nr 2 in starting position, leg Nr. 3 in final position. That is how filmish his concepts always were. The "Juggler" is not a comic, but a kind of storyboard. You can see how it unfolds like an animated film.

In an interview Blechman once said - and he is far too serious to be fishing for compliments: "I couldn't draw, so I damn well had to be funny and bright to compensate for the fact that my drawing was so terrible." And, what was important, he arrived at a period when one type of illustration had been around for too long and he was offering something fresh, which was conceptual and funny illustration. The finesse of his telling a story in his diminutive lettering and drawings made him the envy of other cartoonists. He is essentially an artist's artist, highly intelligent, very ironical and knowledgeable, in one word perfect. But filmmaking was his dream. He thought animated films would be the best thing for him. He worked in one studio and did storyboards, got bored and went for a long trip to Europe. He eventually did make animated films. In 1979 he opened his own studio. "The Ink Tank". His webpage gives every viewer the pleasure of watching tiny half or one minute films, on YouTube you can enjoy the animated X-mas message he did for CBS in 1966. In 1984 he won an Emmy for "Outstanding Individual Achievement in Animation Programming" for his animation of Igor Strawinsky's "L'Histoire du Soldat" - "The Soldier's Tale", an hour long broadcast on PBS's "Great Performances". It was a visionary triumph. The press called it a "kaleidoscopic animation extravaganza, imaginative and enchanting." Small wonder that Blechman did not only have one man shows at galleries, but that the Museum of Modern Art devoted a retrospective in 2003 to his animated films Blechman also did lots of commercials for Sony or Alka Selzer or Capezio shoes or Olivetti or IBM. Because he did not care very much about advertising, he could explore new ideas and concepts. His Sony ad for tapes is a priceless example. A fiddler has dropped his famous instrument to the floor, holds the bow limply and dreamingly has tucked the tape like a fiddle under his chin while watching and listening to the colourful sound that a Sony tape seems to produce. And Blechman has whiffs of colour floating to heaven from that little tape. It is so minimal and so magical, pure Blechman.

He published in the New York magazine, Esquire, New York Times and New York Times magazine, The New York Times Book Review, Rolling Stone and many more. And of course he drew lots of covers for the NEW YORKER and all the covers for STORY. He made children's books like "Franklin, the Fly" and all counted seven graphic-novels like "The Book of Jonah", that looked like frozen animated films or "The Emperor's New Armor", a work of fabulous sophistication in style and view. His body of work is complex and subtle and so refined without ever losing real feeling or curiosity. Whatever he turned out, be that a commercial or an illustration or a cartoon or a book or a film it was always artistic and aesthetic to the hilt, perfect, yet quite often very tongue in cheek. In 1983 he was voted illustrator of the year, in 1999 he was elected to the Art Director's Hall of Fame.

Politics and social dynamics are Blechman's lifelong staple. His characters live in ambiguity, questions abound, answers are ironic and absurd. He gets his political message out in a soft way. He believes in indirect preaching. Anything too direct would not fit his elusive lines. You know that each Preisträger is asked for an original cartoon. This of course stays in the possession of the Anwaltskammer, but you have the great fortune to buy a piece of the edition of 200 for only 200 Euros. Given the current volatility of financial institutions, this is a very good investment. Mr Blechman has brought an excellent cartoon that is all Blechman and fitting for times of globalization and turmoil. Quite a few typical Blechmanian characters are struggling and juggling to keep the delicate balance of many worlds aloft. The colour green is not only the colour of hope but of the environmental conscience. With the new president elect there seems to be a greener future ahead for all of us. I can only recommend purchasing this very special Blechman.

R.O. Blechman is an excellent choice for the Karikaturpreis of the Bundesrechtsanwaltskammer, and Bob, you are in the best of companies: Ronald Searle, Tomi Ungerer, Edward Sorel, Marie Marks, Gerhard Haderer. I am sure they are proud to receive you in their midst. Asked about the difference between an artist and a cartoonist, the famous German cartoonist Loriot answered: "Artists occasionally cut off their ears, cartoonists never do that." On this happy note, Bob, congratulations for a cartoon prize that celebrates your artistic body of a life's work. Even though some colleagues and other cognoscenti think that you are next to Saul Steinberg the most artistic of cartoonists, don't cut off that ear and make another animated film, presto.

 
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