The Bloody Pen of David Levine

David Levine

— The New York Review of Books (www.nybooks.com/gallery)

Lyndon Johnson was worked over mercilessly in Levine’s caricatures. LBJ cried crocodiles over Vietnam, and his nose grew with each lie until it was as long as Pinochhio’s. Richard Nixon’s incisors gradually became fangs. His face got blotchier and his neck more wizened until his head looked like a piece of rotting fruit balanced on a slender stem. As for George Wallace, he threatened to sue over a caricature that transformed his chin dimple into a tiny swastika.

Levine insists he feels no malice toward those he draws. “President Johnson always reminded me of my favorite uncle. Many of his facial expressions and mannerisms were just like him—but my uncle didn’t have anything to do with Vietnam. It’s totally a matter of issues.”

Levine is an equal-opportunity caricaturist who is just as rough with liberals. His Hubert Humphrey writes a speech with an ear of corn. His portrayals of Robert Kennedy resulted in his being blackballed, or so it’s rumored, from the celebrity tennis tournament at Hickory Hill, the family estate in Virginia. Levine is an obsessed tennis player, and you get the feeling that really hurt.

Levine is also brutal with his own face. When he caricatures himself, he takes a nose that is mildly prominent and turns it into a huge, heavy blade with sharp edges and a wicked point. The exaggeration nods at self-deprecation, but hints at something more sinister. “This is a dangerous man,” the caricature says. He may dress in exquisite tweeds and live in a beautiful apartment in Brooklyn Heights with spectacular views of Lower Manhattan, but when he picks up his crow quill pen, terrible power can be unleashed.

Aside from the drama of his nose, the rest of Levine’s face is calm and symmetrical. The smile is broad and even. The black hair, cut plainly and without sideburns, is combed straight back from a high forehead. Without the nose, Levine would look like Mao Tse-Tung before he became chairman.

The resemblance to the young Mao may be appropriate. Levine’s father was a garment worker in New York, and the atmosphere at home and in the old neighborhood was strongly socialist. Levine’s political instincts remain left-wing, but his taste in art is conservative. Levine’s caricatures are rendered with delicate cross-hatching that recalls 19th Century illustration. His watercolors have a Whistlerian feel for light and shadow, and his sensitive portraits suggest Manet and Eakins. An avowed “art Bircher,” Levine once drew Pablo Picasso as a garbage man unloading a dump truck filled with his work. His caricature of Jackson Pollock shows the artist urinating on one of his splattered paintings.

“I’m moved by painters who investigate life. I might walk by a thousand religious paintings, and then see a Carravaggio. Now there’s a painter who really thought about what it would mean for Abraham to sacrifice his son.”

For Levine, Rembrandt is the great truth-seeker of the human soul. “He didn’t just observe the minutia of life. Rembrandt found a way to look at a pockmark and see in it the excitement of life. He looked at the way skin sags on the face and saw that it was sacred because life put it there.”

—The Louisville Times

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