A Chomsky caricature

Will Leben commenting in Facebook yesterday about the June 9th issue of the New York Review of Books, with a drawing of Noam Chomsky on the cover:

This meaty review [“A Case Against America” by Kenneth Roth, review of Noam Chomsky’s “Who Rules the World?”] rightly takes Chomsky to task for cherry-picking facts and for sometimes getting them wrong. Also included, the most hideous, cartoonish drawing of him in print.


The review is critical of Chomsky, but (as several commenters have observed) not as critical as it might have been. As for the drawing, as I noted on Facebook:

The drawing is indeed cartoonish; it’s a caricature, by the NYRB‘s current resident caricarturist, James Ferguson (succeeding David Levine, who did many thousands of caricatures over the years), Caricatures aren’t portraits in any ordinary sense; they’re intentionally exaggerated and mean to evoke character or highlight notable characteristics of their subjects. Many are affectionate, like Al Hirschfield’s theatrical caricatures in the NYT; on the other hand, some political caricatures (like Thonas Nast’s) are savage. In the NYRB, getting a caricature, rather than a photo, is a sign that you’re a Person of Significance.

Chomsky in a 2014 press photo that very well might have been the model for #1:


The magazine has, in fact, an on-line gallery, which (in 62 pages!)

showcases caricatures drawn for The New York Review by four artists: David Levine, whose more than 3,500 caricatures have illuminated articles published in the Review since 1963; and John Springs, Pancho (Francisco Grails), and James Ferguson whose works have been published regularly in the Review over the past few years.

The galleries showcase illustrations of presidents and poets, composers and scientists—from Achebe, Agnew, and Albee to Zapata, Zola, and Zyuganov. The works of David Levine are in black and white and those of John Springs, Pancho, and James Ferguson are in color.

There is a useful search function, which netted me some fine caricatures by Levine, including three of Chomsky, going all the way back to 1972. Also affectionate caricatures of Joan Didion, Albert Einstein, and linguist Steve Pinker. I’ll post all of these, but first a note about b&w caricatures vs. color ones. The great tradition of caricatures (see the Wikipedia page) is mostly a pen-and-ink (b&w) one (though Max Beerbohm added watercolor tinting), in which the likenesses are obviously stylized. Frankly colored caricatures, like #1, look more like photographs, and it is easy to judge them as such.

So it’s easy to see #1 as a just slightly exaggerated portrait, highlighting the wild hair, the rather big ears, the prominent eyeglasses, and the quizzically raised eyebrows, and humanized by details like the liver spots on his face and the bags under his eyes. Compare this to David Levine’s depiction of another Wild Wise Man of the Tribe, Albert Einstein:


Wild hair, raised eyebrows, bags — and a monumental nose, hugely more pronounced that the nose Ferguson gives Chomsky in #1. And #1 is framed as an ordinary  head shot, while #3 shows a whole body, with macrocephaly (a common device in caricatures: focus on the head by making it outsize).

On Levine, from Wikipedia:

David Levine (December 20, 1926 – December 29, 2009) was an American artist and illustrator best known for his caricatures in The New York Review of Books.

… His first work for The New York Review of Books appeared in 1963, just a few months after the paper was founded. Subsequently, he drew more than 3,800 pen-and-ink caricatures of famous writers, artists and politicians for the publication. Levine would review a draft of the article to be illustrated, together with photos or other images sent by the staff of the Review. Within a few days, he would return a finished drawing that caught “a large fact about his subject’s character” … Only about half of Levine’s caricatures were created for the Review. Other work has appeared in Esquire (over 1,000 drawings), The New York Times, The Washington Post, Rolling Stone Magazine, Sports Illustrated, New York Magazine, Time, Newsweek, The New Yorker, The Nation, Playboy, and others.

(Ferguson seems to have neither a Wikipedia page nor a website, nor does he seem to give interviews, so I know almost nothing about him.)

Levine caricatured Chomsky at least three times for the NYRB:

in “A Special Supplement: Chomsky’s Revolution in Linguistics” from the June 29, 1972 issue (note the ascetic lips, as in #1):


in “Chomsky and His Critics” from the October 23, 1980 issue and “End of the Revolution” from the February 28, 2002 issue (a doodle with fly-away hair):


and in “Israel: A Partial Indictment” from the June 28, 1984 issue:


The wild hair, the glasses, the ears, and the nose are constants.

These are evocative of character, but not particularly affectionate. Here are two more Levines that are greatly exaggerated, but show real affection for their subjects. First, Joan Didion:


and the linguist Steve Pinker:


Yes, Steve has a mop of frizzy hair, and he smiles a lot. (He also radiates energy and enthusiasm.) Here’s Steve in real life, with a notable frizzmop, but nothing as luxuriant as in #8 (this might have been the model for #8, in fact):


NYRB has used #8 four times so far:

in “The Set Within the Skull” (review of How the Mind Works) from the November 6, 1997 issue; in “‘Sneaked’ or ‘Snuck’?” (review of Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language) from the March 14, 2002 issue; in “Darwinian Storytelling” (review of The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature) from the February 27, 2003 issue; and in “How You Think” (review of The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature) from the September 27, 2007 issue

As far as I can tell, NYRB never reviewed Pinker’s 1994 book The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language (a masterpiece of writing for a general audience), and it hasn’t (so far, anyway) reviewed his 2014 book The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (another masterpiece, to my mind; see my 12/2/14 posting “Getting it all wrong” about the hash the New Yorker made of reviewing the book).


2 Responses to “A Chomsky caricature”

  1. John Lawler Says:

    The 1972 Chomsky caricature looks remarkably like Tom Lehrer. Comparing them is a thought that had never occurred to me before.

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