Denys Wortman (1887‱958), the subject of a retrospective opening at the Museum of the City of New York on November 19, once said: “I don’t try to be funny. I try to draw contemporary life.”
The first major museum exhibition of cartoons and drawings by Wortman, considered masterpieces of composition and gesture, will be shown in “Denys Wortman Rediscovered: Drawings for the World-Telegram and Sun , 1930‱953.” Organized in collaboration with the Center for Cartoon Studies, the exhibit will be on view through March 20.
A symposium to open the exhibition will take place on Thursday, November 18, at 6 pm at the museum. It is co-sponsored by the Center for Cartoon Studies and will feature celebrated writer and cartoonist Jules Feiffer. Tickets are $10 for museum members and $15 for all others. For advance registration and information, www.mcny.org or 212-534-1672, extension 3395. Space is limited.
Susan Henshaw Jones, the Ronay Menschel Director of the Museum of the City of New York, said, “Denys Wortman and his cartoons were all but lost to history, which is why we are so pleased to present them in New York. This overlooked cache of works reveals scenes of the city as it evolved from the Great Depression to the Cold War, as it emerged from despair and moved toward prosperity, as it built and rebuilt itself in the midcentury. How fitting that this museum should present the first major retrospective of one of the great chroniclers of the unique urban experience.”
Wortman depicted life among New Yorkers coping with difficult and often harsh economic realities, portraying with compassion and humor quintessential moments shared by city-dwellers. Capturing the intimate and the “everyday” in the lives of New Yorkers at home, on the street, in tenements or in the workplace, Wortman gained a loyal following with his visual column titled “Metropolitan Movies,” which he did for 30 years, six days a week, in the pages of the New York World (later known as the World Telegram , then the World-Telegram and Sun ).
Wortman’s overlooked artistry came to light when cartoonist, educator and editor James Sturm discovered a vintage book titled Mopey Dick and the Duke . Taking note of the masterful drawings †casual, confident and brimming with personality †Sturm found Wortman’s son, Denys Wortman VIII, who explained that in his possession was an archive of more than 5,000 illustrations that he had held for 35 years. Also found were drawers full of his father’s correspondence, including letters and holiday cards from fellow artist and cartoonist William Steig and the legendary Walt Disney.
Critical to Wortman’s success throughout his career was his wife Hilda Renbold Wortman, who made hundreds of photographic studies of New York City street life. These images provided telling visual details of the built environment, including shops signs and lampposts, while also describing the body language, posture and dress of New Yorkers. She was also instrumental in creating the captions for the cartoons. Her photographs will be on view alongside her husband’s drawings.
Wortman also contributed 49 cartoons to The New Yorker between 1929 and 1937. He died in 1958. Hilda Wortman died in 1992.
The Museum of the City of New York is at 1220 Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street. For information, 212-534-1672 or www.mcny.org .