Up Close With Saul Steinberg

A second exhibition celebrates the work of Saul Steinberg and showcases an important group of works donated to the Braidense Library.

Saul Steinberg
Steinberg in Milan, in May 1938. Unknown photographer. Daniela Roman Collection.

“This exhibition is a contribution to the exploration of a common history, a history that connects artists to books, passions to places, people to ideas,” said James M. Bradburne, director of the Pinacoteca di Brera and the Biblioteca Braidense.

As announced in the exhibition “Saul Steinberg Milan New York” in October 2021 at the Triennale, the Saul Steinberg Foundation of New York has donated a large number of works by the New York-based artist to the Biblioteca Braidense in Milan.

The donation mainly concerns drawings but also works made with stamps, wooden objects, metal plates, paper masks and small oil paintings, which document the tireless ability of Steinberg, among the greatest American draftsmen of the 20th century, to use the most diverse techniques and styles in a continuous process of invention.

Saul Steinberg
Untitled, 1959. Braidense National Library, Milan. © Saul Steinberg Foundation/Artists’ Rights Society (ARS) New York.

The donation is one of the largest in the history of the Saul Steinberg Foundation, a U.S. nonprofit organization established at the behest of the artist himself. A bequest that finds its perfect location in the Braidense, also because of the presence in the Library of the collection of satirical magazines Bertoldo and Il Settebello, through which Steinberg achieved early fame as a humorous cartoonist in 1930s Milan.

The constant autobiographical reference that characterizes most of the donated works also induces us to grasp the varied nuances of the life and personality of the artist, who formed important friendship relationships with some of the protagonists of the lively Milanese cultural world of those years.

Titled “Saul Steinberg Up Close” and curated by Francesca Pellicciari, the exhibition celebrates this group of works and outlines, in a period from the second half of the 1930s to the first half of the 1990s, many aspects of the artist’s career. In addition to the works donated to the Braidense, thanks to a collaboration with the New York Public Library, the exhibition is enriched by a loan of fifteen portraits to writers, artists, friends and celebrities: from Jean-Paul Sartre to Bernard Berenson, from Constantine Nivola to the Queen of England, Elizabeth II.

Saul Steinberg
Untitled, 1954. Braidense National Library, Milan. © Saul Steinberg Foundation/Artists’ Rights Society (ARS) New York.

It also represents a unique event because of the presence of texts by Steinberg himself, many of them previously unpublished, which wind their way throughout the exhibition suggesting possible keys to interpreting the works and revealing, alongside a better-known Steinberg as an artist, a writer of “great and special qualities,” as his fraternal friend Aldo Buzzi wrote.

Texts from interviews, letters, but above all from conversations Steinberg had with Buzzi in the summer of 1974 and the fall of 1977. These texts were chosen because they were particularly suited to accompany the works in the collection in a narrative journey that could provide suggestions rather than explanations, and show the hidden gifts of the Steinberg writer alongside the better-known ones of the Steinberg cartoonist.

“We tried to leave the talking to the author. In the search for an order that was not purely chronological, some of Steinberg’s texts came to our aid, some of them unpublished, which Aldo Buzzi had kept waiting for them to be published one day,” said curator Francesca Pellicciari.

The exhibition of Steinberg’s drawings in the Braidense National Library is also an opportunity to introduce some important new features that affected the layout of the Maria Teresa hall. In particular, to accommodate the important loan of the fifteen portraits from the New York Public Library, the curtains were replaced and some of the display cases were redesigned to guarantee new and high conservation standards. The metal structure of some of the vertical panels, originally designed by Gae Aulenti, has been revised to accommodate the larger drawings.

“Saul Steinberg Up Close” is on view through 26 November at the Biblioteca Braidense, with free admission.

Gianmaria Biancuzzi is executive editor of Milano Art Guide.