Saturday, March 13, 2010

In appreciation of Françoise Mouly

Speaking of the New Yorker cover, I once saw current New Yorker art director Françoise Mouly give a speech on the history, distant and recent, of the magazine's vaunted cover. It was one of the three or four most interesting lectures I've ever attended, and I've taken Civil Procedure.

During the presentation my friends and I happened to sit near her husband, Art Spiegelman, a New Yorker contributor and the Pulitzer-winning illustrator of Maus, and their kids. It was her day, though, and she held an audience of hundreds in rapt attention.

Mme. Mouly evinced a deep appreciation for and knowledge about the magazine's history, speaking with the authority of the curator and expert her job requires her to be. She took us from the Jazz Age roots of founding editor Harold Ross through midcentury decades of sedate still lifes to the feisty Tina Brown era. That editor's arrival was marked, fittingly, with an Edward Sorel illustration of a leather-jacketed punk rocker taking a carriage ride through Central Park.

The Mouly-Spiegelmans come from the underground comic scene and infused its modern sensibility into the staid New Yorker upon their arrival. For example, where the magazine once shied away from addressing current events on its cover, it has more recently tackled them, and not always quietly. After the unarmed Amadou Diallo was gunned down by New York City police officers, a primary-colored cover illustration showed one of New York's Finest happily squeezing off rounds at an arcade shooting gallery whose sign read, "29 Shots, 10 Cents." Offended NYC policemen picketed the magazine's offices.

Spiegelman, in fact, contributed the deeply moving cover of the first issue after the September 11 attacks. The issue at first looked all black, in memoriam. But the white words "THE NEW YORKER" were not completely intact; a closer inspection revealed that crossing the W in the nameplate was the antenna from one of the fallen World Trade Center buildings. The "black" cover was in fact a subtle tribute, the haunting image of the two towers on a dark gray background.

Also apparent from Ms. Mouly's remarks were the great care and painstaking effort she devotes to its current covers, working closely with contributing artists and developing new ones. That the magazine's cover artists so perfectly capture again and again the gestalt of current events, seasonal themes, and city moments is no accident; she hires the best, but they must benefit from her gentle guidance.

Her remarks explained a great deal about how the New Yorker cover stays so fresh and poignant in an age when illustration and painting are often overlooked. To someone who knows little about art but cares about the New Yorker, her ongoing tenure as art director feels like an era all its own.

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