DENYS WORTMAN’S NEW YORK in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Wortman cartoons reveal real New York of '30s-'40s

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette    |    Roger K. Miller    |    January 4, 2011

If the articles and stories of the great New Yorker writers of the first half of the previous century -- Joseph Mitchell, A.J. Liebling and, especially, John McNulty -- had been illustrated, no more appropriate artist could have been chosen for them than Denys Wortman.

He captured in line, white space and shadow the lives of ordinary New Yorkers that the writers captured in words.

You might ask, Denys Who? Mr. Wortman's cartoons and illustrations, for all their remarkable skill, are nearly forgotten today. Yet for three decades he produced a panel cartoon six days a week for the New York World and Sun and did illustrations for other publications, including The New Yorker.

His feature, "Metropolitan Movies," ran from 1924-54; this terrific collection of cartoons focuses on 1930-45, a period of cultural, political and visual continuity for New York, particularly the Lower East Side.

The Museum of the City of New York is currently exhibiting a selection of Mr. Wortman's cartoons titled "Denys Wortman Rediscovered: Drawings for the World-Telegram and Sun, 1930-1953."

The show runs through March 20 (www.mcny.org).

In it are careworn housewives chatting on fire escapes or on adjacent buildings, young women sunning themselves on tar-covered rooftops, con men, sandwich-board men, sailors, store owners haggling on the streets with customers, front-stoop loungers, Coney Island fun-seekers, the out-of-work, embarrassed "relief" applicants, and many more.

They are rendered with superb draftsmanship -- strong lines that swoop and slash but are controlled, not careless. Like the artists of the Ashcan School, he has observed everything closely. He gives the viewer real people, real faces, real situations.

They are called "cartoons" but are really slices of life, or snapshots. While nearly all are humorous, the humor is gentle and charming; he did not strive for a joke.

"I try to draw contemporary life," Mr. Wortman said. Captions were often added afterward, sometimes suggested by others.

Women predominate, from housewives sitting in kitchens next to their Glenwood-style gas ranges to society ladies in nightclubs. A wife, sitting with her husband at a stage play, says, "I say things like that at home, but you don't laugh at them."

A young woman in jeans says to her mother at a sewing machine, "Mother, I wish you'd make that evening dress of mine so darn seductive that everybody'll say I wouldn't let my daughter wear that."

And occasionally the melancholy, the touching, the sad. A little girl to her exhausted mother with her face down on the kitchen table: "Don't cry, be little, and I'll be your mother."

At heart, however, what Mr. Wortman caught was the feel of a time and a place -- and its inhabitants.



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