- The Washington Times - Friday, August 12, 2005

STOCKBRIDGE, Mass. — An aloof dandy examines a fluttering butterfly through a monocle.A round-faced woman draped in a fur coat is stalked by a thuggish raccoon with vengeance burning behind his masked eyes.

A group of trick-or-treaters dressed as firefighters and police officers parades through a Brooklyn neighborhood a month after many of their real heroes died in the September 11 terrorist attacks.

These images are a sample of cover drawings for New Yorker magazine — brimming with whimsy, wit and wordless commentary on current events — now on display at the Norman Rockwell Museum.

“First we find artists who draw beautifully, but that’s the easy part,” says Francoise Mouly, the magazine’s art editor, who helped curate “The Art of the New Yorker: Eighty Years in the Vanguard.”

“Our artists must have an idea that’s worth communicating something to our readership,” she says.

In the magazine’s first issue in February 1925, the cover drawing of Eustace Tilley — the fictional pretentious dandy — was meant as a self-mocking effigy poking fun at New York’s out-of-touch high society while ushering in a fresh forum for the city’s new cultural elite.

The covers were not always so thought-provoking, though.

For several years in the magazine’s early history, the drawings were simply nice, offering up scenes such as sailboats gliding by lower Manhattan.

“They were pleasant, but not necessarily meant to make you think or have a conversation,” says Stephanie Plunkett, the Rockwell museum’s curator of illustrated art. “You would love to see them every week, but they weren’t shocking.”

The tone of the covers changed in the early 1990s when the magazine’s new editor, Tina Brown, settled in with a mandate to make the New Yorker more topical and controversial.

At a time when tensions were high between the city’s Jewish and black communities after a young black boy was killed by a car driven by a member of the Hasidic Jewish community, the New Yorker responded with a cover that outraged many readers. Art Spiegelman’s drawing for the magazine’s Valentine’s Day issue in 1993 shows a Hasidic man and a black woman — both with their eyes closed and arms around each other — frozen in a kiss.

The hate mail and subscription cancellations poured in.

“I was aware it was mischievous and ironic and would have reverberations,” Mr. Spiegelman says. “With that cover, the New Yorker was hereby announcing it was no longer going to be its old, staid self.”

The magazine didn’t shy away from chiming in on other social woes plaguing the city. In a January 1995 edition, the cover commemorated Martin Luther King’s birthday by depicting the civil rights leader as a larger-than-life fixture of the city’s skyline, looking down on a sidewalk scattered with the despondent and disenfranchised. The title of Mark Ulriksen’s cover is “I Had a Dream.”

The exhibit is divided into sections dealing with themes, which include holidays, marriages (homosexual as well as heterosexual unions) and politics.

The covers chronicling New York City’s and the country’s response to the September 11 terrorist attacks have delivered stark memorials, hopeful messages and ironic observations.

With just a matter of days to pick a suitable cover in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the New Yorker decided for its Sept. 24, 2001, issue to run a Spiegelman drawing that silhouettes the World Trade Center against a plain black backdrop.

The following month, as the country — and especially New Yorkers — began trying to move on from the shock, Peter de Seve delivered “Local Heroes,” in which his jolly faced trick-or-treaters canvass a row of Brooklyn brownstones dressed in the uniforms of firefighters and police officers.

“I was nervous about how that would be received,” Mr. de Seve says. “A lot of artists were gun-shy about how to depict 9/11. I had no idea how I would comment on it.”

He got the idea for the drawing after attending a vigil for the firefighters who died in the World Trade Center, held at a firehouse in his Brooklyn neighborhood. Out of the 21 covers he’s done for the New Yorker — including the image of the brutish raccoon tailing the fur-wearing woman — that drawing fetched him the most — and best — reader feedback, he says.

When the country decided to go to war, the magazine didn’t keep its editorializing off the cover. Owen Smith’s “Soldiers,” used on March 31, 2003, shows a battalion of camouflage-wearing troops marching over discarded posters calling for peace and declaring “War is not the answer.”

“I love the covers because they all tell a story,” says Vickie Jourdan, a 60-year-old collage artist from Hilton Head, S.C., who recently visited the exhibit and wallpapered her kitchen with New Yorker covers when she had an apartment in Manhattan.

“They illustrate what’s going on around us,” she says, “and not just in New York, but all over.”

“The Art of the New Yorker” runs through Oct. 31.

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