(all images are the property of R O Blechman)
R O Blechman found success early with a small but influential book called The Juggler of Our Lady in 1952, when he was 22 years old. He wrote and illustrated it in one night, on his parents’ kitchen table, and for a long time, he says, he worried that it would be the only thing he would ever do.
Well, Mr Blechman needn’t have worried. (I have to refer to him this way; I don’t actually know him, but we have been in occasional contact. “R O” sounds silly by itself, I couldn’t possibly call him “Bob”, and calling him merely “Blechman” sounds too much like he’s a character in an early Woody Allen short story.) He is now 89 by my reckoning and has had a very productive life – he has had success as a writer, an artist, an illustrator, a designer, and a filmmaker. He has let it be known that his greatest disappointment has been that he hasn’t yet been able to make a feature film, and that really is a terrible shame. But the two television specials he made – 1977’s “Simple Gifts” and 1984’s “L’histoire du Soldat” – were very widely praised and won several awards, as did many of his commercials. A sampling of his film work can be seen on Vimeo.
Mr Blechman’s output has been so wide and so varied that I obviously can’t cover it exhaustively in a blog post – though someone should actually write a serious book about this body of work – so I have a choice; I can either cover the 60+ years of his working life rather briskly and superficially, or I can try to zero in on some aspect of it to explore. Though I would love to write about the animation, I’m afraid I don’t know much about animation – and anyway this is a blog about books and book design. So I’ll stick to that.
Much has been written about Mr Blechman’s signature line: a “squiggly” line, a “nervous” line, a “jumpy” line. But I haven’t seen anything yet written about Mr Blechman’s elegant use of space, of spareness, and his manipulation of that space in his cartoons and his design work. I think his mastery of this space is what makes his “squiggly” line all the more expressive – in fact his lines are so fragile that I don’t think they could exist without the comfort of surrounding blankets of empty space.
Mr Blechman’s style can be (roughly) divided into two phases – the work done before the early- to mid- 60’s and that which was done after. About his early style he hasn’t much good to say; he’s called it awful, and really terrible, and dreadful and ugly. One example:
I don’t think it’s any of those things, and he admits that it could sometimes lively and witty, but I do agree that his style at this time isn’t distinctive enough. It’s child-like, but I think it’s only part of the wave of post-war commercial art that favored little men in hats with big noses, and ladies with floral dresses and piles of hair. Steinberg drew similarly early in his career, as did many others working in advertising and magazines – in retrospect you can see the seeds of their brilliance but I can imagine that at the time they all seemed one of a piece.
In spite of The Juggler of Our Lady, this was not the Blechman Style that was to become so well-known and influential in the 60’s. Part of that is due to the changes in his line, but also in his firmer and more confident approach to space – and I’d like to illustrate with two examples of his approach to a similar idea, divided by about 20 years. The first is his cover for the May 1958 issue of Harvey Kutzman’s Humbug:
The theme here is obviously a strong wind. The joke is not only the fact of the little man holding his hat (the hat will be blown into the constellation of other hats, whether it is being worn by somebody or not), but also the sudden relative symmetry of the cloud of hats. He has told the story of how painstakingly he cut-and-pasted these hats into place – putting them first here and then there – until he was completely fed up with it. However, he was right – the joke works very well and is quite eye-catching. But it is more of a cartoon than a design, I think.
In 1977 he designed this cover for the March 7 issue of The New Yorker, and now we are in new territory. What he is drawing is no longer the effect of the wind on objects, but actually the wind itself. There is a perfect asymmetrical balance – if one were to move one newspaper or one umbrella even a fraction of an inch, the image would fall apart. The wind is so extremely present that you can almost hear the howling gusts.
If this image reminds me of anything, it reminds me of some of the great ukiyo-e masters of Japan, who also knew a thing or two about the use of empty space. But I don’t know of any other image, in any medium, that so elegantly shows the nature of wind itself. Plus it’s beautiful, colorful and funny – to be honest the great ukiyo-e artists never really mastered funny.
It also has the distinction of being the most kinetic of any New Yorker cover I’ve ever seen – New Yorker covers, no matter their relative quality, are generally rather static tableaux. This cover almost flies by itself off the newsstand – the perfect marriage of word and image.
When that sympathy isn’t perfect, as in the case Mr Blechman’s brilliant illustration/definition of “schlep” on the title page of the 2001 reissue of Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish, one feels as though the typeset words are unwelcome intruders into a purely pictorial space. I can only imagine how lovely this image must be in life; the empty whiteness emphasizing both the heat of the sun and the endless sand surrounding the tiny Israelites. I know it couldn’t be helped – it is an image for the title page after all, and it’s got to show the title. But if you appreciate R O Blechman’s delicate sense of harmony, you can at least imagine the balance of the original image.
I’d like to get all of his books, and though they aren’t easy to find in Amsterdam, I’m always delighted when I do. There will always be room on The Tsundoku Line for R O Blechman.