For many here in the U.S. the name Peter Steiner evokes images of the legendary cartoons that have appeared in The New Yorker and other publications. Some have become icons which have often been reproduced on tea cups and greeting cards. That Peter Steiner is a highly versatile artist is revealed in a recent exhibition of his portrait collection which can be seen at the Austrian Embassy in Washington, D.C.
The son of Austrian parents who emigrated from Austria to the United States in 1938, Peter Steiner grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, and went to the University of Miami (Florida). During his university years he spent his junior year at the Freie Universität in Berlin and returned to Germany to serve in the U.S. Army. Having graduated with an M.A. and a Ph.D. in German Literature from the University of Pittsburgh, he became a professor of German language and literature at Dickinson College for eight years and travelled to Germany and Austria every year. He also spent a Sabbatical year in Vienna writing about the writer Franz Werfel.
When asked about his childhood and memories of his Austrian family that influenced him as an artist, he remembers when his Austrian grandfather, who was an art historian and Brueghel expert, took him to museums and other sights of Vienna when visiting the city. He still maintains close ties to Austria and his relatives in Vienna and some years ago acquired dual citizenship. Apart from his family’s Austrian background, his parents’ interest in music and art had a strong impact on him during his early childhood. His parents were both musicians. As a child protégé his mother performed on stage in Vienna as her own mother had. Although born in Ireland his grandmother came to Vienna to become a musician.
In discussing the beginning of his career as an artist he recalls, “I had been drawing since childhood, but I started painting in about 1975 while still teaching at Dickinson. In 1978 I left teaching to discover whether I could live as an artist. I moved to Georgia with my first wife who was teaching there. I painted still lifes and landscapes and began to exhibit my work, also sending cartoons to various magazines and newspapers.”
In 1982 Peter Steiner moved to Virginia, near Washington, D.C. where he continued exhibiting his paintings, but for the next twenty-five years he made his living primarily as a cartoonist for The New Yorker, The Weekly Standard, and The Washington Times. The cartoons that made him famous in the U.S. were also exhibited in Austrian Embassies in Washington and Warsaw as well as in Vienna. A particular highlight, as Steiner recalls, was a joint exhibition of cartoons by Steiner and famous Austrian cartoonist ‘Ironimus’ (featured in the Austrian daily newspaper, Die Presse), which was organized by the Press and Information Service ten years ago. Steiner started cartooning when he was a child. “I think it has more to do with the temperament of the artist than anything else. My inclination was much more of an outsider looking in and having a critical take on what was going on around me. That is pretty much the perfect temperament for someone who wants to be a cartoonist, and it happened that I could draw and liked to draw. That all started in my childhood. I had cartoons published in the school newspaper when I was eleven or twelve years old and from then on, I saw myself as a cartoonist.”
The cartoon ideas all came from him. He submitted his cartoons to the editorial boards, which decided whether they would take them or not. As he explains, “Cartoons are cherished in the United States and in Austria alike but have different roles in each country. Cartoons in the United States are viewed more broadly. Cartoons like those in the New Yorker and in the funny pages here, don't exist in Austria. Most Austrian cartoons have a kind of political bent, I think. They don’t have the sort of social commentary that we have. And, of course, American humor is very different from Austrian humor. A lot of things that Americans find amusing would leave Austrians puzzled. You look at the cartoons in the New Yorker, especially in the older New Yorker and there is a specific type of American humor behind them, and you cannot translate that easily. Even political cartoons are different. If you put ‘Ironimus’ next to an American political cartoonist, their cartoons really look different.”
Peter Steiner stopped most of his cartooning around 2004 in order to focus more on painting. In the meantime he had also started writing novels. “I enjoyed writing so much that I did it at first without thinking of trying to have the work published.” But eventually he found an agent and has now published two novels. The third is due to be published next fall.
As Steiner explained, the development leading up to his latest exhibition started when he began to make portraits and self-portraits in 2005. “The first one came out pretty well, so I decided to do more. And because I enjoy doing these paintings, I continue to do them. I used to paint still lifes and landscapes and showed these works at art galleries; the portraits are interesting because every face is unique and challenging. I'm trying to get a good likeness and, at the same time, to make it alive and vivid. So I like all of them to be a kind of exciting and well-painted painting, and I like the resemblance to be strong. I like also the cumulative effect. The more faces there are, the more interesting it gets. There are about 120 faces around the room. And it has a kind of startling effect. It is like walking into a crowd.”