The Center for Cartoon Studies

March 1 - May 3, 2008
Exhibition hours: Saturdays 10am - 5pm

Opening Reception
Friday, March 7, 5-7pm
Gallery Talk 6pm

Free and open to the public.

No one would argue that Denys Wortman (1887–1958) was not a cartoonist. The facts are irrefutable: from 1924 through 1954 Wortman penned the single panel feature Metropolitan Movies. The strip began in the New York Sun, ran six days a week, and was syndicated to other papers nationwide under the title Everyday Movies. Wortman also contributed 49 cartoons to The New Yorker between the years 1929 and 1937.

Yet in many cartooning history books Wortman’s strip is either not mentioned at all or given a truncated entry. The strip was unlike most— it did not traffic in parody, melodrama, or slapstick. Nor did Metropolitan Movies provide serialized adventures or feature the same recognizable characters every day like Little Orphan Annie, Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy, or Popeye.

In Art Wood’s 1987 book, Great Cartoonists and Their Art, Wortman’s name is mentioned only in the last chapter, “Cartoon as Art,” and is named along with Europeans Daumier, Goya, Hogarth, and fellow Americans Frederick Remington, George Bellows, Williams Glackens, John Sloan, Reginald Marsh, and Peggy Bacon as “artists utilizing cartoons.” Perhaps this is an accurate assessment. Wortman was not concerned about gags— he often created the image first, before determining on a caption. Wortman’s wife Hilda supplied many of the captions and ideas for the strip. “I don’t try to be funny,” said Wortman, “I try to draw contemporary life.”

Wortman’s drawings are masterpieces of composition and gesture. His line is both casual and commanding, sympathetically recording all the people, places, and things that came under his scrutiny. Architectural details, a restaurant kitchen, a tailor’s shop, the cart of a street peddler, a pharmacy’s cluttered shelves—Wortman connects you, in a way that only drawing can, to a sense of time and place. With their buttery tones, his original drawings look like lithographs.

Wortman actually drew with lithographic crayons, as well as black carbon pencil and ink, on 11˝ x 17˝ coquille board (a bristol board with a finely pebbled textured surface that creates a halftone effect when reproduced). But printed 4.5˝ x 4˝ on newsprint, Wortman’s artwork suffers.

The original drawings contain more of an informal sketchy quality than the published strip. Lightly drawn lines seek out definition recording the history of the artist’s hand— a record of the drawing process itself. Much of these subtle, inquisitive lines are lost in reproduction. The luminous atmospheric effect produced by the lithographic crayon looks more like static on an old black and white television set when reduced onto newsprint.

Most daily comic strip artists worked with reproduction in mind, relying upon the drawing’s reduction to tighten their compositions. They also simplified forms, eliminated extraneous details, or worked only with crisp blacks and whites to create a graphic statement on the newspaper page. Wortman certainly had the facility to employ any of these techniques but producing a punchy daily comic panel was not Wortman’s only goal. As Wortman himself said, “My real interest is in drawing.”

Wortman originally set out to be a fine artist studying at the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts with legendary teachers Kenneth Hayes Miller and Robert Henri. There he rubbed elbows with a group of artists that included John Sloan, George Bellows, George Luks, Rockwell Kent, and Edward Hopper. All were encouraged by Henri to use the "rich subject-matter provided by modern urban life." Cartoonist Art Young dubbed this approach to picture making the "Ash Can School" of art.

Despite exhibiting a canvas in the 1913 Armory show, Wortman struggled with his painting. He never felt his canvases were finished and would linger indefinitely over details or abandon them altogether. The problem seemed dire enough for Wortman to consult with a psychologist— a bold move in the early 1900s. What Wortman and his therapist soon determined was that he needed deadlines.

Metropolitan Movies was an established feature cartoon in the Joseph Pulitzer-owned newspaper, The World (home of The Yellow Kid). Its artist, Gene Carr, after a three-year stint, was leaving the feature in 1924. Several cartoonists tried out to take Carr’s place, but Wortman got the gig and kept it for the next thirty years.

Under Wortman’s hand, Metropolitan Movies had several recurring series (that are represented in this exhibition) which include: “In and Out of the Red With Sam” (set in the New York City garment industry), “In Old New England” (Wortman moved to Martha’s Vineyard in 1941), “Mrs. P. Algernon Vanderstyle” (a society matron type popularized by the New Yorker cartoonist Helen Hokinson), “Show-Bizzness,” “Mrs. Rumpel’s Rooming House,” “Out of the Windows” (conversations conducted out of apartment windows), “Mopey Dick and the Duke” (hobos and Wortman’s most popular characters).

Many of the buildings and backgrounds were sketched on site. For "Mrs. Rumpel’s Rooming House," Wortman made drawings of every room from various angles of a four-story Manhattan brick building. Vanderstyle’s stately home is based on an actual mansion. Wortman achieved his goal to make authentic settings for his narrative tableaux. His characters don’t exist outside their environments— they are inseparable from them.

While continuing to paint and contribute cartoons and illustrations to various publications, Wortman produced over 9,000 Metropolitan Movies drawings druing a 30-year period. To be able to produce the sheer volume of such masterfully crafted drawings is almost beyond belief. Wortman was a drawing machine.

Although Wortman’s newspaper panels did not cause him to be remembered as a towering figure in American cartooning, his original drawings certainly make a case for him as one of America’s greatest artists. Since most of Wortman’s original drawings have never been seen outside a newspaper office in over half a century, Wortman’s legacy demands reevaluation.

James Sturm
White River Junction, Vermont
March 2008

Original Drawings by Denys Wortman
40 Metropolitan Movies drawings on display at The Center for Cartoon Studies
March 1 through May 3, 2008

Special thanks to the artist's son, Denys Wortman.
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