Driving up I-91 from the Bronx in his red ’96 Subaru, James Sturm was eager to get home to Vermont so he could Google “Denys Wortman.”
Sturm, cofounder of the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, had just bought a private collection of 1000 books, including, he’d noticed, a copy of Mopey Dick and the Duke. That was a 1952 hardcover compilation of Wortman’s cartoons about a pair of tramps in Manhattan.
“I was excited to have found it,” Sturm recalls in an interview, “because it was obvious that Wortman was undeniably terrific in terms of drawing.” Sturm had previously been “only vaguely aware” of Wortman’s work, which had been all but forgotten in the decades since the cartoonist’s death in 1958.
It took less than a New York minute for Sturm to locate Denys Wortman VIII on the Internet. And the artist’s son had some amazing news: Plastic bins and filing cabinets in the attic and garden shed of his Martha’s Vineyard home contained more than 5000 of his father’s original drawings.
All this happened in 2006. Four years later, after having helped preserve and catalog the drawings, Sturm organized a revelatory show of Wortman’s drawings at the Museum of the City of New York. “Denys Wortman Rediscovered: Drawings for the World-Telegram and Sun, 1930-1953” opened in mid-November.
On display are about 75 of the 9000 panels Wortman produced for the World-Telegram and its descendant dailies. Six times a week, he drew vignettes of working-class life with a grease pencil, graphite and ink. Grouped under the heading “Metropolitan Movies” — or “Everyday Movies,” as the series was called in national syndication — the cartoons depict factory women, businessmen, subway riders, laborers, sunbathers, street urchins and, yes, tramps in a lost New York of automats, organ grinders and itinerant fruit peddlers. With an incisive eye and a sure hand, Wortman conveys respect and empathy for his subjects. He seldom sinks into condescension or sentimentality.
Wortman, who was born in 1887, studied under Robert Henri, a leader of the urban-realism painting movement known as the Ashcan School. His classmates included such 20th-century American art stars as Edward Hopper and George Bellows. Wortman tried to carve out a career as a painter — and did have a waterfront scene included in the historic 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art at the New York Armory — but he eventually came to accept that his true talent was as a newspaper cartoonist.
Not a ha-ha funny cartoonist but a visual chronicler of a time and a place, much like the Londoner William Hogarth (1697-1764) and the Parisian Honoré Daumier (1808-1879). Wortman has been compared to both. Unlike those satirists, however, “Wortman didn’t care about the gag or the punch line,” Sturm notes.
Many of the chatty captions accompanying his panels do evoke smiles, but Wortman wants the viewer to focus on his characters and settings. Some of the best work shows scenes from the Depression, although the mood is usually rueful or wistful, rather than angry or pessimistic.
Wortman achieved his beautifully naturalistic style by working from photos taken by his wife, Hilda — a few of which are included in the show. For a male of his era, Wortman shows exceptional sensitivity to women’s circumstances, whether they are gossiping on fire escapes, flirting with sailors or sweating in a garment factory.
How did so superb an artist virtually vanish from public view — until Sturm happened on him? “Wortman fell into the crack between cartooning and fine art,” Sturm suggests. He wasn’t much celebrated in either of those worlds — in part because cartoons weren’t seen as serious art in his time, and because Wortman’s single-panel format fell out of fashion with the success of strips such as “Peanuts.”
But Wortman’s work is now properly archived at the Center for Cartoon Studies. And Sturm says he hopes to put on a Wortman show there sometime in the next couple of years.