Active in Peace Dale, R.I.
Sound recording: 2 sound tape reels 5 in. analog
Transcript: 36 p.
Collection Summary: An interview of Fritz Eichenberg conducted 1979 May 14-1979 Dec. 7, by Robert F. Brown, at the artist's home, in Peace Dale, R.I., for the Archives of American Art.
Eichenberg discusses his career; his artistic philosophy; various books he has illustrated including, "Jane Eyre," "Wuthering Heights," "The King and I," and "Crime and Punishment"; working with Dorothy Day for the "Catholic Worker"; drawing political cartoons for "The Nation"; working for the WPA; and becoming a Quaker.
Biographical/Historical Note: Fritz Eichenberg (1901-1990) was an illustrator, cartoonist, and printmaker from Peace Dale, R.I.
These interviews are part of the Archives' Oral History Program, started in 1958 to document the history of the visual arts in the United States, primarily through interviews with artists, historians, dealers, critics and administrators.
Funding for the digital preservation of this interview was provided by a grant from the Save America's Treasures Program of the National Park Service.
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Also in the Archives
- Oral history interview with Fritz Eichenberg, 1964 Dec. 3
- Oral history interview with Fritz Eichenberg, 1970 Nov. 3
This transcript is in the public domain and may be used without permission. Quotes and excerpts must be cited as follows: Oral history interview with Fritz Eichenberg, 1979 May 14-Dec. 7, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Interview with Fritz Eichenberg
Conducted by Robert Brown
At the artist's home in Peace Dale, Rhode Island
May 14 1979 and December 7, 1979
The following oral history transcript is the result of a tape-recorded interview with Fritz Eichenberg on May 14 andDecember 7,1979. The interview took place in Peace Dale, Rhode Island, and was conducted by Robert Brown for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
ROBERT BROWN: We've already interviewed you, particularly about your earlier career in Europe and your involvement in WPA in New York. Perhaps we can pick up your story after the WPA days. For one thing, I know you began teaching at the New School for Social Research in New York in the mid-30s; continued into the mid-40s. Could you comment a bit about that and perhaps some other aspects of your career as it began developing in America in the late 30s.
FRITZ EICHENBERG: My work at the time was made very difficult because of the Depression. I had a small family to take care of and I had to find some kind of employment. Which was almost impossible because I was a stranger in this country. And when the WPA disappeared, or evaporated - which was around 1940, I would think...
ROBERT BROWN: About then.
FRITZ EICHENBERG: By that time I had made contact with Alvin Johnson who was then kind of my patron saint - the head of the New School and the University in Exile. He was very much interested in me. He tried to put things in my way, like my connection with The Nation at the time for which I did cartoons for about a year and a half. It was a great chance for me but I wasn't too well informed about what was going on in this country. I concentrated on international issues more than domestic ones.
My teaching experience was really based on my three or four years at the New School. I gave lectures on subjects which interested me. For instance, the history of the cartoon, the history of satirical caricatures, and so on. Which still interest me as much as they did at the time. And that led me into all kinds of other things which then became incorporated, I would say, in my work with publishers. By that time George Macy of Limited Editions Club commissioned me to do Crime and Punishment. That was my first major book.
ROBERT BROWN: Was this the first of your Russian...
FRITZ EICHENBERG: The first of the Russian novelists, yes. I had done this as a student before in Leipzig. But this was, to me, a kind of acid test whether I had grown up enough to handle it adequately so that Dostoyevsky would have approved of it.
ROBERT BROWN: Was this his choice? Crime and Punishment. Or yours?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: His choice.
ROBERT BROWN: But you felt you were quite interested in the Russian novel?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Yes. Because all the problems that I had seen and lived through were somewhat the same problems as the Russian novelists were treating.
ROBERT BROWN: For example.
FRITZ EICHENBERG: The starved student, Raskolnikov, who takes the law into his own hands
and commits a murder; feels himself like a little Napoleon fighting an issue
which was much too big for him
and paying a very heavy price for it - being sent into exile. But in the end there was redemption, always, and that attracted me very greatly to the Russian novelists. It's not an unrelieved account of human suffering. It's always, in the end, an effort to show that, through human suffering, one becomes purified in a way and that redemption in the end is the hope for which you are praying; for which you're working. I think I have not lost this kind of attitude or this kind of an interest in, let's say, heavy psychological literature. The more difficult it is psychologically, the more I'm interested in it. And so, from Crime and Punishment it led to Tolstoy and Turgenev and to Pushkin.
ROBERT BROWN: Why do you think this is? That more involved psychologically a situation is, or a novel, or a piece of literature, the more interested you are? Is this again a fact that your own life...
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Well, it solves, also, my own problems. Some people have to take it to a psychiatrist or a psychoanalyst. I was able to use art as a kind of purifier, or as a kind of a safety valve for my own problems. Because to leave your so-called "native country" and come into a completely new civilization and adjust yourself to it - raise children here - presents a problem which is not insurmountable. But it's psychologically difficult. You don't want to be a rebel in your new country. You want to show your gratitude, in a way. You also try to do your share to improve conditions wherever they can be improved by your knowledge, or by your work, or by your contribution to society. And, I think, through my work, I could reach people, which has always been very important to me. I couldn't work without an "echo" of some sort. I couldn't work in an ivory tower.
So, one book followed another and I became known as "the man who does all these morbid things." At the time they were called morbid. And I think we have come a long way because, now when people see my work, they understand it so much better than did forty or fifty years ago.
ROBERT BROWN: What do they see in it now, do you think?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: They see what I saw in the beginning: the redemption through suffering. You don't necessarily look for suffering but it's built in. Man is a very fragile being. He does his best to corrupt the environment in which he lives. We have now the problems of pollution and nuclear energy and we have gone through a disastrous war. We lost more than the war. We lost our integrity and our standing in the world to a large degree. Whatever I could do as a kind of conciliator coming from the other side I tried to do. That's one of the reasons why I was picked out to go to the Soviet Union for the State Department, at the time. I met thousands of Russians and shook hands with them. They saw my work and they saw I understood "the Russian soul," as they said.
The same when I went to southeast Asia. I made so many friends there through my work. So I knew I was not too far off when I selected to be a not too popular artist in the beginning. Most people then would say my work was "grim," "unrelieved," "morbid." Now they say, "This is life, this is the way life actually is, you have to deal not only with life. You have to deal with poverty, disease, corruption, pollution, death." And death has become very popular now.
ROBERT BROWN: But back in the thirties people tended to put their head in the sand, right?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: That's right.
ROBERT BROWN: Did you develop new ways of presentation when you began illustrating these Russian novels?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: No.
ROBERT BROWN: Could you give briefly an idea - how did you try to project something? Could we pick perhaps a particular scene, or a mood in, say, Crime and Punishment that you illustrated?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Well, whether it's Crime and Punishment, or whether it's Fathers and Sons, or The Brothers Karamazov, or whether it's Raw Youth, whether it's Dostoyevsky, it's always the same kind of problem: it's the clash of generations, usually. The rebelling of the young person. In Raw Youth you have it. In Fathers and Sons you have it. In Crime and Punishment you have it. How can he better the condition of mankind - not to make more money, or to get a better position, but do do something for mankind which will in the end help you too to overcome your psychological problems? Because these were all intellectuals, as Dostoyevsky himself was: a man who was severely ill all his life. He was an epileptic. He overcame these things by pouring all his anxieties and his insights he gained through extreme suffering into his novels.
ROBERT BROWN: How did you express this in your illustrations? Could you summarize how?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Because of empathy I have with these authors.
ROBERT BROWN: But what graphic techniques or devices or representations of the figure and emotions did you hit upon?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Well, by chance I hit upon wood engraving as the best medium. Or lithography.
ROBERT BROWN: Why those?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Any medium where I could work from dark into light, or from black into
white, with all the gradations - which is also symbolic procedure: a process
which makes it possible for you to create life out of a void. As you face the
blank woodblock or the darkened surface of a lithographic stone, you create
life out of it by throwing with your first touch of the graver - the first touch
of your etching needle, or razor blade. You create a source of life that spreads
over the whole scene and picks out the main actors and the main emphasis on
the certain interrelationship, usually, between two human beings. When you look
at my work, you find Raskolnikov and the pawnbroker, let's say, or Raskolnikov
and Sonia, the prostitute who became his redemption in the end.
It's always a kind of a dialogue between two people as you have when you read the novel, too. When you read Dostoyevsky you have a dialogue between the two individuals - you and the author. No matter what. If you read the Bible you have the same kind of thing. To bring this out in my work, to make the dialogue clear so that it becomes a kind of a touchstone for the effectiveness of my representation. Does it unmistakably carry my message and the message of the author, or doesn't it? Somehow, without manipulation it comes to me naturally. Over the years I have paid very little attention to it. But now that I am getting old I see all these reactions coming back.
I get letters from people I will never see, from all over the world - as you know when you look at my correspondence - who have seen my work and have been touched by it - moved by it - and have learned to love that particular literature in which I'm also interested. And since I have been lucky enough to be commissioned to do the imagery accompanying the works of great writers, it makes me a kind of a mediator - a kind of interpreter - a visual interpreter - and has helped many people to read Dostoyevsky who've never read Dostoyevsky before. Or the Brontes. Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are probably the most popular books I have done. Wherever I go people say, "I grew up with Heathcliff, you know, under the tree" and "I grew up with Jane Eyre." Hundreds of people, after I give talks, come up to me and they always mention Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. Some mention Dostoyevsky but the majority (which is natural) would prefer to read an English author to a Russian one.
ROBERT BROWN: So, by the end of the Depression you were well into your career of illustrating.
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Yes. Then I attracted the attention of institutions of higher learning, so to speak. I was approached by Pratt Institute. At first I didn't want to teach full-time. Then they coaxed me to at least try it. So I spent a day at Pratt, one day a week. They said, "Well, next year maybe you'll take on two days," which I did. I commuted from Westchester to Brooklyn for years, you know. And then I became more and more involved.
And then my friend, who was the head of the department, retired and he had groomed me to take over, because he said, "If you leave, the whole thing you have built up with the students will collapse." I had, meanwhile, started the Pratt Graphics Center and I had started Pratt ADLIB Press. I had a marvelous relationship with my students and I had built up the graphics department - which didn't exist before I got there - into something quite formidable.
ROBERT BROWN: What was your approach to teaching, in general?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: My approach to teaching is, again, the dialogue - the eye- to-eye approach. I could really catch a class of forty by giving lectures. You know you have to follow up with each student. You see him or her separately in your office and you begin to understand their own problems. Where do they come from? What kind of problems do they have to overcome? Are they really suited for the kind of career they're embarking on or could they do something else better? Could they become writers or dancers or actors or actresses? Many of them did. And this only comes out if your have a heart- to-heart talk. Then it's fairly easy to run a class because they all know you privately. It's hard work and it takes time, and it takes interest in humanity in general. And this is what I always had.
ROBERT BROWN: What did you attempt to get them to do? Those that seemed to have a gift for graphic arts? The technical part - was that a very major...
FRITZ EICHENBERG: No, the technical part to me has always been secondary - important enough but secondary. The first part was that they recognize the world in which they live. If it was Brooklyn, I said, "Go out and bring me back something that you have experienced - where you were born, you must be familiar with your surroundings. Come back with a report on Brooklyn." If they came from Connecticut, I said, "What did you see on your way from Connecticut to Pratt? Have you been affected by social or economic conditions? Are you interested in something special? Are you interested in sports, or in criminology, or in the theater, or in modern art?" I asked them always, "What do you read? Have you gone to the theater? What kind of playwrights do you like? What kind of poetry do you read? Are you interested in dance? Are you interested in movies or in photography?" I tried, really with all my strength, to develop the individual.
ROBERT BROWN: You started this early on, in your relationships?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Yes.
ROBERT BROWN: Did you find in most cases this loosened them up? They began to...
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Yes. And most of them made the grade somehow. Some became art directors, which was not in my program; some became cartoonists, which was not in my program; some became book artists; some are very successful illustrators of children's books now. Anita and Arnold Lobel just got the Caldecott Medal, or some such thing. And they still work together - they got married while they were in my class - on their children's books. She either writes the texts and he draws the illustrations, or she does her text and illustrations, or he does his text and illustrations - which I think is a marvelous indication of how this has worked out.
ROBERT BROWN: But these people developed their whimsy or outlook on things - you helped them transfer this to their work.
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Yes. I insisted on one thing: that they learn how to draw and become actively engaged in graphic arts. Printmaking was an important part of the program. I started the print laboratory, so to speak, and got a building for the presses that we needed.
ROBERT BROWN: Pratt at that point didn't have too much emphasis on the visual arts?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Painting, mostly; painting and sculpture. That was not too developed either but they had nothing in graphics. They had an advertising department with which I had nothing to do; interior design, industrial design, and so on. The art department was concentrated on painting and sculpture. And I started the first graphics program. It started with a bang, really, because the students were waiting for it. And now, you know, every institution has an art department with a graphics workshop attached to it.
ROBERT BROWN: Yes. Much of your work, and what you've said so far you did with your students was sort of interpreting, or taking a story or writing a story and then projecting it through graphics. What about prints for their own sake?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Yes, also.
ROBERT BROWN: A good deal of that?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Yes. A good deal of that too. But I never tried to cram things down people's throats. If they didn't feel like working with books, I didn't force them. They could do prints as many as they wanted to. If they were interested in medical illustration, for instance, I got a person to come in to lecture and start a program of medical illustration. I invited a mime group, for instance, to perform for the students, because they were silent, very much like illustration. You should be able to determine, if you see a mime group, what they're trying to convey without words. It's pretty much what you do in art. It either is convincing or it isn't.
And so we had Etienne Decou, who was the teacher of Marcel Marceau. I heard he was in New York and he gave a series of eight lectures and I made a book out of it together with the students. They learned a tremendous lot out of watching acting. And actors come in too, because I'm interested in the dialogue. And I had short stories. I had them read the short stories and then they enacted them whether it was Faulkner or Dreiser or whoever. Also, it's a great help to see - if you have an idea and let's say you want to illustrate Kafka: to reenact a scene which shows man against man, you know - the anonymous let's say prisoner in Kafka's The Trial up against the law, the law which doesn't explain anything. How does a person deal with these problems? An actor can act it out, you know. And the students usually cannot because they've not been trained for this kind of thing.
ROBERT BROWN: And having seen these actors, it enabled them to begin projecting into their own graphic work.
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Right. They sketched while they performed, you know. These were usually young actors and there was a kind of immediate communication between them and the students.
ROBERT BROWN: You were a teacher, then, and in the mid-fifties became head of the department.
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Yes.
ROBERT BROWN: Did this involve a lot of administrative work?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Yes.
ROBERT BROWN: Did you enjoy that?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: No, I did not. I insisted on an assistant chairman, which they have never
done again. In the first place there isn't any money in the budget for this.
But it relieved me of administrative work. I could really run the department
without getting too deeply involved in the budgetary things. Of course I could
hire faculty then without anyone breathing down my neck. I had more or less
complete freedom to do what I wanted, because it was a new approach. Pratt got
a lot of credit for it, so they let me do what I wanted to do.
ROBERT BROWN: You mean they got credit for the success of your teaching.
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Yes.
ROBERT BROWN: But you also founded the Graphic Arts Center, too, in 1956 or so.
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Yes.
ROBERT BROWN: And that was sort of a Manhattan outlet...
FRITZ EICHENBERG: I wanted to get Pratt out of Brooklyn.
ROBERT BROWN: Why is that?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Because Brooklyn is a very provincial place. In trying to raise funds, which I also had to do for my own department, I found that if you say Harvard or Yale or Princeton, you can always get funds. You can always get successful alumni who come across, you know. But if you say Brooklyn, no. The Brooklyn Dodgers at the time, you know, were called "The Bums." It has a kind of connotation of the Bedford- Stuyvesant section - the lower classes so to speak. Very difficult to raise money for Pratt Institute. And so I thought that if, in the first place, I get a workshop going in Manhattan, I can attract people from all over the world, from practically every continent. And I succeeded in that. Whereas, no one would go to Brooklyn. [laughing] They would come to Manhattan, and they did come there.
ROBERT BROWN: This is a workshop for what, people to produce editions or for teaching or...
FRITZ EICHENBERG: No. It was a workshop which was open to anyone who proved to be a legitimate artist and wanted to make prints. It was not an undergraduate nor a graduate program. I insisted on independence, so that I could take a student who came from Argentina or from India - we had lots of Indian students - or Chinese, Japanese. I could take them on at the drop of a hat if they showed me their portfolios. I knew their names. We attracted a lot of very prominent artists, too, established in their countries. Like Ikeda, for instance, in Japan, and David Hockney from England, who did some prints in our place. Archipenko was still living then; he did prints there. We had "old" masters and "young" masters and we had completely unknown people working side by side and no questions asked. The main thing was that they produce art in any graphic techniques that they choose.
ROBERT BROWN: How did this relate to your teaching program generally?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: I divided my time between Brooklyn and Manhattan. When I became chairman here, at the University of Rhode Island, I was still, I was still on the Pratt Payroll. Once a week, Thursday and Friday, I was by contract obliged to go to the Center and run the Center, which I did for another five years.
ROBERT BROWN: What did "running the Center" mean, and what did you do at the Pratt Graphic Arts Center?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Everything! For instance, I had a program of inviting prominent artists and printers from all over the world. Some came from Germany, some came from England, some came from Holland to teach there for three months or for a full semester or for two semesters in their particular field. It worked beautifully. They profited by our experience when they went back to their own countries. We had people from India, from Ahmadabad, who went back to Ahmadabad and taught there at the University of Baroda. We had others who didn't want to go back. One of the Indians that I brought over from Calcutta is now an associate professor at Lehman College and is very happy. He has a Spanish wife and is very successful - does very good work. He learned the ropes in our place.
ROBERT BROWN: Did you, in your time at Pratt, bring in some notable colleagues as well to fill out various other aspects of your program?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Oh, yes. We had a marvelous faculty here. Richard Lindner.
ROBERT BROWN: How did you happen to find him?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: He found me somehow. He wanted to teach. He worked then for Harper's Bazaar and for some very fancy Conde Nast publications. He wanted to paint and he wanted to have time for his own work without being tied in with commercial work . I must have met him somewhere and he asked me could he teach. Well, he started pretty much the way I taught at the New School - with no experience in teaching. It was his first job. I said, "O.k. I'll try it out. Here's a class. Come in tomorrow and teach. If it works, it works; if it doesn't work, too bad." And he was an immediate success.
ROBERT BROWN: What did he do? Did he lecture?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Well, he had a class which he called "Creative Expression," which
covers a multitude of sins, you know - he could do anything. And the students
- he had a marvelous way with
students. He took them out to Broadway. You know, if you are foreign-born, you're much more interested in the exotic side of New York than one who was born there, who takes these things for granted. To him Broadway was the most exciting place; it shows in his work, in his paintings. So
he took the students on trips to Battery Place and to Broadway and to the "lower depths," I would say. And they came back with fantastic work. This is how he built up a class. He taught for two days, for three days - the same way I began. And then he became all of a sudden the great success that he was. By that time he was sixty years old. And Claudia Ekstrom gave him his first big show. He left the department and, boom! - he couldn't produce enough painting. And he said, "I can't teach three days, anymore. Two days." And then a year later, "I can't teach two days. One day." And then he said, "I'm too busy. Could I have the students come to my studio?" I said, "I'm awfully sorry; then everyone else would do the same thing." And this is how we parted. But we stayed friends till the end.
ROBERT BROWN: You parted in a friendly way.
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Yes.
ROBERT BROWN: You understood that he'd gone off...
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Yes. Well, he was too big for us then, you know. And we still had people like Calvin Albert, who is a good sculptor. And Stephen Green taught for us, and Fred Castellone, Alexander Brooks...
ROBERT BROWN: Were these all pretty good teachers?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Excellent teachers. I had a marvelous faculty. They really taught - you see, I was there from morning till night. And if a chairman really watches his flock, they can't escape. They couldn't just say, "I teach" and stay for an hour and then return to the studio. They really stayed for three hours, till the class was finished. And I had faculty meetings every week to keep track of things.
ROBERT BROWN: What were they like? Did you just sort of stir around ideas?
You weren't really strict with them, or, did you seem to be vigilant?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: I guess so, yes. [laughing] Because I was raised as a person where duty plays an important part in what you're doing. You take on a commitment, you see it through. They noticed very quickly that they couldn't get away with - as they do here. I see this at other institutions. Sometimes
they take on teaching because it gives them time to do their own work and they spend as little time in the classroom as they can. And they don't treat the individual students as individuals. Which I think is an easy "solution" of the teaching profession. Unless you take an interest in the individual - you can't do "mass teaching," especially in the arts. It's not a matter you can do by t.v. or a loudspeaker to a class of one thousand. You just can't do it like in Madison or in Berkeley, or wherever, where you have fifty thousand students. What do you do?
ROBERT BROWN: You have to have follow through. You have to discuss with them their work. You have to have immediate contacts.
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Oh yes, yes.
ROBERT BROWN: What did this do to your own work? You were there every day of the week, from morning to night.
FRITZ EICHENBERG: I sometimes wonder how I did it, really.
ROBERT BROWN: Were you able to be productive in the fifties and sixties?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Yes. I practically did a book a year.
ROBERT BROWN: You did several children's books, I know, during that time.
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Yes, in the beginning, before Pratt. Most of my serious work I did after 1938. 1937 I did Crime and Punishment. And then my childrens' books kind of dwindled.
ROBERT BROWN: But you were able to do that much work even when you were chairing the department at Pratt? 1956-66.
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Yes. And I started with Artist's Proof. I had a full editorial job...
ROBERT BROWN: That started, when? In the 1950s?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: 1961. And I carried that through till 72 - eleven years.
ROBERT BROWN: You were the chief person there?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Yes. I'd started it so I had to see it through. Yesterday I went through my files because I knew you were coming. The book, The Art of the Print, which I started in 1965 - it's a pile this high of material - which I did also while I was chairman of the department, and did my other work. I'm a restless person, you know. If I can't work I feel very unhappy. And that may be the only rational explanation why I could do such an enormous amount of work. I ran the ADLIB Press, too. We published about four publications a year. Artist's Proof was another independent arm of Pratt.
ROBERT BROWN: Artist's Proof was set up for what purpose? What did you have in mind?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: To promote printmaking.
ROBERT BROWN: Through articles? Illustrations?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Yes. And, again, I always tried to keep it as international as possible. My correspondence was with people everywhere -people I met in Russia, in India, Ceylon. A friend of mine spent some time in Baffin Bay and started the Eskimo graphics workshop - the first one in the Arctic. I had work from Africa, from New Guinea, and so on. I went deliberately out to make contacts in countries where I knew there was a beginning interest in the graphic arts. Artist's Proof went all over the world, actually, and we had a circulation of about three thousand which was not so bad. We were almost self-supporting. We had a few thousand dollars deficit each year. And I insisted on the best printer possible: American Gravure Company. People everywhere still stop me and ask, "Where's Artist's Proof? Why didn't you continue?" Well, it just became too expensive.
ROBERT BROWN: And it ended...
FRITZ EICHENBERG: It ended in 72 when I was here, teaching at Rhode Island.
ROBERT BROWN: Now the ADLIB Press - what was its function?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: It was entirely centered on the students. I picked them in their junior year and has a team of twelve. Each one had to pick his own subject matter, his own graphic medium; had to set the type; had to convey a certain message. I was the editor - or art director I should say - of the whole thing. But it was actually run by the students. We produced about twelve issues. In order to raise money for it (because Pratt never had any money for anything) I published four "keepsakes" a year. Sometimes I asked an artist like Munakata to do a woodcut for met. Since he also taught a semester at the Pratt Center I knew him well enough. He gave me a woodcut which he made especially for me. For me he wrote an essay on the woodcut. I published it in a limited edition and sent it out to a group of about one hundred subscribers I had, who paid about twenty dollars a piece for four original works of art; usually booklets of some sort - some very interesting things. And with two thousand dollars I could cover my deficit. That was a thing I couldn't turn over to any assistant, you know. I had to do it myself. And since my name by that time was quite well known, I had an easier time to raise money for such things.
ROBERT BROWN: As you look back on it, was teaching and being involved at Pratt, generally
speaking, a good thing for your own career?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: I felt it was more a debt I paid off to this country. Because I'm very fond of America as a country that has welcomed so many people from different parts of the world without asking questions. You had to live on your merits. Whatever you do - sometimes they doubt it in the beginning, but if you don't really do it for your own sake, if you do it as I did in this case for generation after generation of young Americans, it convinces people it's worth supporting. And I always had the support of the administration in everything I did if I could raise my own money. [laughing] As long as it didn't cost them anything I could do really what I wanted.
ROBERT BROWN: Now, in the fifties or so - could we go through some of the things you illustrated at that time?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Yes.
ROBERT BROWN: Any that you'd like to highlight and particularly bring out?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: In the fifties...
ROBERT BROWN: You came to the University of Rhode Island in about 1966.
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Right.
ROBERT BROWN: Could you say something about why you came and what you found here? Were you trying to do what you did at Pratt?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Dr. Horn was president of Pratt Institute. We became friends
there mainly because he admired my work very much and what I did at Pratt and
he helped me a great deal to establish the graphics department as a kind of
internationally recognized thing. And he thought, when he became president of
the University of Rhode Island, we could put this kind of thing in the smallest
state of the union. Perhaps this is where I couldn't judge the situation properly,
because I'd never been here it was my first acquaintance. I saw the University.
I gave some talks there. I got familiar with the faculty - they were happy that
I was coming from New York, and so on. But what I found was that the faculty,
with academic freedom intact, would insist on staying where they are in their
own field. And they were all more or less on the avant-garde kick, let's say
- abstract, non-representational. The students came from small potato farmers
- Portuguese, Irish, Italian - didn't know much about art. It's not a very intellectual
atmosphere...originally a land-grant college. Now it's a state university. What I wanted to do with the students was to give them a basis on which they could build up their own creative abilities, no matter (as I did at Pratt) - no matter in what field. But for that they would have to get a decent education in drawing and painting and sculpture and so on...build on the knowledge of the world in which they live - on the human body, on nature, on landscape...
[End of tape 1, side A]
(Picks up mid-sentence from previous side)
FRITZ EICHENBERG: ...on what is typical for Providence. The ocean is right nearby - fantastic experiences. No! The faculty wanted to go on with their own kick, which is something only the very sophisticated could understand. Let's say one put up a kind of a gallows - two two-by-fours hitched together and hung a rope over it. This was a "new art form." Can you imagine that you would get a boy here from a rural community who wants to become an artist - what can he do with it? This kind of thing - I use it as an example - is what made my work there impossible, actually.
ROBERT BROWN: They wouldn't take these unsophisticated people and lead them to it, perhaps, eventually - a more sophisticated stage?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Right.
ROBERT BROWN: So you found no preparation for what you wanted to give them?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: No. And then when they leave the school after four years, they have actually wasted four years on experimentation with a highly advanced sophisticated mind who knows enough about what's going on at the Whitney Museum, or the Museum of Modern Art, or the Guggenheim - that works and all this kind of thing, high fashion you know, but completely useless for the young unsophisticated student. I fought this and I tried to introduce graphics as a medium for pulling things together. The faculty didn't like that. So I feel that I largely wasted my time here. But I found Peace Dale a good place to live in. [laughing] At least it had a blessing on the personal basis.
ROBERT BROWN: You found the place a sort of oasis, where you could get away from...
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Yes.
ROBERT BROWN: And this is more or less a time when you were able to begin doing things on your own more than in the past...
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Right.
ROBERT BROWN: ...and not so dependent on commissions.
FRITZ EICHENBERG: It has increased, let's say, my productivity considerably. No doubt about it. And the fact that I can travel a great deal, I can get to New York and Boston and Providence very easily. I have been in demand as a speaker really more than ever before. And I had exhibitions in Boston and New York, so I have the best of the two worlds, actually - the metropolitan as well as the provincial.
ROBERT BROWN: In a way, although the University of Rhode Island experience was not a good one, coming here...
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Has worked out very well, yes. [laughing] And I wouldn't think of moving away from here. But it has also taught me a lesson. When I was asked to University of Wisconsin (Wisconsin is also a kind of a very large Rhode Island in many ways) the way I'm received there because of my work proves to me that I have not wasted my time - that I'm much more understood now than I ever was before and that there is a need for an emotional response.
People want to respond emotionally. I find that in every discussion that I have after my talks, that people have lived through a kind of a frigid period in art. They have accepted abstractions and Abstract Expressionism and Earthworks [Earth Art] and Op-Art because they didn't want to look foolish. But what they really need is an emotional outlet. And that comes through in this young generation very much. My son or my daughter, you see how they live. They go back to a time almost Victorian in this approach to life. You know, the more ornate and decorative things are, the more they feel secure in a time which is already gone.
I don't know whether this is a stable or healthy attitude. But it shows the need, I feel, for the heart to be engaged, too, not only the brains and the hand. So many more people are taking up papermaking, for instance. And so many more private presses have opened up. What the outcome of it will be is too early to tell. People go back to carpentry all over the country. The most sophisticated people I know [he laughs] have taken up carpentry. Strange. And my work has very much more appeal also because people admire the craftsmanship of it. "How do you do this?", you know. "How can you do this with a simple piece of wood and your little engraving tool?" The emotion that it conveys is mixed with an admiration for the technical proficiency.
ROBERT BROWN: Do you mind that?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Not at all, no. But it's a strange recognition. I'd never given that any thought, you know. I always worked the way I wanted to. I've never compromised knowingly with my own desire. In the choice of subject matter, in the choice of medium, I've always followed my own instincts or own intuition. I probably never gave much thought whether I would be as popular now at the age of seventy-seven or what - you know, as I am now. It's not based on the fact that I'm old. It's based on the fact that my work is reaching certain recesses in people's emotional life. Sounds stupid, but that's the way it is.
ROBERT BROWN: Which you found were dried up for about twenty years, so that people weren't into abstraction, obviously.
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Yes. You know, when you went to the Museum of Modern Art
twenty years ago and you looked at the work of, let's say, Andy Warhol or [Robert]
Rauschenberg or whoever it was, or [Ad] Reinhardt - black on black, or white
on white, where you saw nothing but the "emperor's new clothes," you
know. And if you listened to people's conversations, you always found them shaking,
being very puzzled. Sometimes a guard comes up and explains to them [both laugh]
and he's also getting a little tired of it. You always had the feeling of anemia,
somehow, in art. And when they stand in front of a
[Paul] Gauguin or a [Vincent] Van Gogh and so on, life came rushing back. Art is an emotional thing just as religion is an emotional thing. If it isn't, it becomes cut and dry and it dies.
[End of May 14, 1979 session]
[Beginning of December 7, 1979 session]
ROBERT BROWN: This is a second interview with Fritz Eichenberg in Peace Dale, Rhode Island, December 7, 1979.
Mr. Eichenberg, in this taping we were going to talk about people who've been
particular friends of yours. And, secondly, you wanted to discuss with me work,
particularly as an illustrator, that you consider to have been high points of
your long career. One of the earliest of these in this country that we have
talked about was your involvement, through Dorothy Day, in doing illustrations
for the Catholic
Worker, which you began doing, you said, about 1940. How did this come about? How did you get to know her?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Well, it might give the wrong idea if you say I started my career with Dorothy Day, because it certainly was a sideline of my - I wouldn't say more serious work, but the work with which I was able to make a living. I had partly financed it through my teaching jobs.
ROBERT BROWN: I didn't mean to suggest...
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Dorothy Day was, from a personal point of view, perhaps the
most important influence in my life. But, let's say from an artistic point of
view or from the point of view of an illustrator, she was not of any great influence.
Because what I did for her was more or less addressed, as she often
said, to those people who could not read - to the illiterate. She said she had seen clippings of my work in the hovels of coal miners and so on, people in all parts of the world; people who could not read the Catholic Worker but they understood my very simple images of saints and portraits of people important in the Catholic worker movement.
ROBERT BROWN: So it did have an effect on your way of illustrating? You simplified...
FRITZ EICHENBERG: No, it did not. I would say I had to re-trace my steps, rather. The work I did for her I did to please her and to help her cause, but not to develop my artistry or my knowledge of illustration.
ROBERT BROWN: I see. You went back to an earlier stage in your development.
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Yes. I tried to be simple. Sometimes simplistic. I very often did images of saints - Saint Vincent de Paul, of whom I'd never heard of before. I studied up on them. I learned something, and I tried to make these drawings as simple as I could so that people would understand them right off the bat, you know. They open the paper and there's a picture of Peter Maurin, let's say.
[R.Brown asks for the spelling of the name. F.Eichenberg responds that it is given the French pronunciation.]
They might not be able to read - I did hundreds of little things for her continuously
and I always encouraged her to call me up when she needed something. Yesterday
I got a letter from Dan Mauk, who's now managing editor of the paper, asking
me to do a portrait of Stanley Vishnevsky who just died (an old friend of Dorothy
Day's). He actually lived in the House of Hospitality - a man of education,
of Russian origin; a big jolly fellow who has just died of a stroke. They want
to have a memorial issue devoted to him; so, Dan sends me some snapshots because
I didn't know the man well. I dropped everything and did the drawing of Vishnevsky
and sent it to them and just got back a letter.
They were so delighted with it. I wasn't so sure it was what they wanted.
I did the same with Thomas Merton a short while ago. I'd never met Thomas Merton, and it was to illustrate a long two-page article on him by Pat Jordan, a friend of mine. So they sent me photographs and so on. I tried to make them look timeless, or ageless somehow - not just to use a snapshot and translate it into my kind of technique, but to do something that makes a face sometimes look monumental. There was an anniversary for Peter Maurin. I had never met him because by the time I met Dorothy Day he had already had his first stroke and was completely incapacitated - couldn't speak - couldn't recognize people. Dorothy didn't want me to meet him in that state. So I used only one or two photographs of Peter Maurin because he was a very modest man.
ROBERT BROWN: What was it about Dorothy Day that got you involved with the...
FRITZ EICHENBERG: She stood for everything that I thought would make life on
this earth better. She stood for the underdog - the oppressed, the poor, the
weak - the ones who were easily discarded by society as "hopeless cases."
Delinquents -bums - she hated to hear that word. There are no "bums"
in her vocabulary. They are the unfortunate people who have been discarded by society. And people might say, "Well, let them work!" But she doesn't ask these questions. She sees - sizes up a person. She sees they need help and she helps.Whether they are Jewish or Christian or Mohammedan - it doesn't make a difference. There are no questions asked. That I like so much.
ROBERT BROWN: How did you happen to meet her?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: I met her at a conference on religious publishing in Pendle Hill which is a Quaker study center in Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia - Wallingford.
ROBERT BROWN: This was in the 1930s?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: That was around 1940, I would say. I was sitting next to her and I just fell in love with her as a person. She's really great. She makes you feel at ease and I could talk to her like to an old friend. In the course of the round table there, we talked about the Catholic Worker - publishing, you know. She knew I had illustrated books and she said, "You know, I have trouble finding Catholic artists to work for me because we have no money." That didn't sound so good to me! She should find a lot of artists to work for her but she can't. So she said, "Would you work for me?" And I said immediately, "Yes." And so the next week she called me up and we got together. I gave talks there very often.
ROBERT BROWN: You right away were so impressed by her.
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Oh, yes. Of course I had heard about her. She's considered, I would say [laughing] a "para-saint" now. Everyone is sure that one day she will be canonized. She deserves it. If you believe in the standard thing, she's certainly entitled to. But she hates to hear about it. Everybody says this on her: that she's a saint. She hates that. She doesn't want to hear that. She just does what her faith commands her to do. She's under direct orders, you know, to do what she does.
ROBERT BROWN: Why were you at this conference on religious publishing?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: I was a Quaker then, in 1940. I gave lectures at Pendle Hill - as I gave talks at the Catholic Worker and in so many other places - where I tried to combine the mission of an artist with the mission of a man who believes in mankind and believes that there is that of God in every man, as the Quakers always proclaim.
ROBERT BROWN: What did you treat in terms of what the artist did with that belief?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Well, anything that I have done in my work. That's a big sentence now if I say "everything" - maybe almost everything that I've done, I could do with a clean conscience that I did my best to bring people together, to make people understand each other. That is my main objective in life. And, no matter with whom I am - whether it's a poor man or a rich man or a Catholic or Protestant - doesn't make any difference. I have friends who come from India. I have friends all over the world. We never discuss racial or denominational differences. We try to find out where we can get together. And in all my travels I found that art is the one medium that immediately brings people together. Because it's visual the language barrier is wiped out. If I show a picture of Gandhi, I don't have to talk about his philosophy. He appeals to Western philosophy and political...
ROBERT BROWN: A very likeness of him, you mean - to try to express him, what he means to you.
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Yes. And, somehow, I get emotionally involved in what I'm doing. The Gandhi face that I have cut on wood - and I did the same with Abe Lincoln - is prompted by the love I have for these people. Otherwise, I couldn't do it. And some of the vibrations - sounds kind of mystical - you know, make these things common property. I have been asked by so many organizations - editors have asked me (I could show you hundreds of letters) - could they use the Gandhi on the cover of their next issue. Whether it is the Mennonites, or the Quakers, or the Catholics, or whoever it is, my work has been used in so many denominational publications which normally would oppose each other. I cut across the "party lines."
ROBERT BROWN: That was very pleasing to you as well, then?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Yes.
ROBERT BROWN: For the Catholic Worker you mentioned that you did portraits occasionally. Specifically, would it be a parable from the Bible, or something from current events, or...
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Sometimes they used work which I had already done - like the Bible engravings which are in this book here. Noah's Ark, Jonah under the tree, the Garden of Eden, and so on. And I told Dorothy from the very beginning, whenever she wants the use of my work, she can use [it]. She doesn't even have to ask me. But she does ask me. And now - well, you know - with copyright you have to be a little more careful. I just threw my bread upon the water and see it coming back to me somehow in the form of real satisfaction that my work touched people. Sometimes she asked me to illustrate a certain event that happened in the life of the Catholic Worker.
ROBERT BROWN: And these are examples.
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Well, then she published - she is actually a born journalist. She comes from a journalist family in the Middle West. Her father was a sports writer. She love to write. She kept a column going in the Catholic Worker called "On Pilgrimage," that was published in paperback, and so on. Harper's published it. And, finally, she came out with her autobiography called, The Long Loneliness. Which, I think, is a quotation from her favorite saint - Saint Theresa of Avila. Her lone battle, you know...
ROBERT BROWN: This is 1952.
FRITZ EICHENBERG: It was 1952.
ROBERT BROWN: Did you adapt to her - you would read her text very carefully?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Yes. I knew it so well because I had read the "On Pilgrimage" column.
ROBERT BROWN: What did you try to convey in these illustrations?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: On the cover I showed a woman (who could be called Mary or by any other name) expecting the Savior and an angel hovering over her whispering into her ear that the great miracle is going to happen. I showed, in the back, the three crosses - Calvary, the way to Calvary, and so on - and a thistle in the foreground as you see here. And here, the spirit ascending to Heaven. I did several chapter headings also in engraving.
ROBERT BROWN: These are fairly simple, clearly separated headings, aren't they?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Right. I never have any discussions about these things, really. People accept them as valid statements of an artist who has a certain belief and tries to express it in this work.
ROBERT BROWN: In this, were you simplifying from what you were doing for other purposes by this time? You mentioned when you started work...
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Not so much in this batch because this was a book as opposed to the paper, which is expendable in its own way. The Catholic Worker, as you can see here, printed the stuff. The paper after a while will fall apart and the Worker has to be preserved in some form or shape. I think I showed it in here - this, for instance, an engraving which I did for the Catholic Worker - a pieta.
ROBERT BROWN: Very simple. Very strongly drawn.
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Yes. You can't mistake it for anything. You can't say it's an "abstraction" kind of depiction of a mother mourning for her dead son, her crucified son. It could be a scene in Vietnam, or it could be five thousand years ago in Etruria, or somewhere.
ROBERT BROWN: Are most of your illustrations for the Catholic Worker wood engravings or are some drawings?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Most of them were wood engravings.
ROBERT BROWN: Lithographs, any of them?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Most of them were scratchboard drawings. There are some in here. "The Black Crucifixion." At a time when the racial question was not very much discussed - before "Black Power" came. I did this before 1963. I didn't know who was going to use it because it's not a very popular conception of a Crucifixion - a black man being crucified and a black mother mourning him.
ROBERT BROWN: So, as you say, although the illustrations you did for the Catholic Worker were not in the mainstream of your career, nevertheless, they have been a very important and continuing aspect of it.
FRITZ EICHENBERG: I think it's important for an artist...[laughing] not just to make a living. To me it's not the most important part of life. Anyhow, to draw a salary every month is not in the cards for an artist. If you teach, it's slightly different.You get a salary and you begin to do things - at least in my case - which have to be subsidized by yourself. With my salary as a chairman of a department at Pratt, or URI [University of Rhode Island], wherever it was, I was able to do things for nothing for lots of organizations who could not pay and from which I wouldn't expect or accept any pay. For example: Fellowship of Reconciliation. In fact, very often I have sent my drawings that they wanted plus a check - which is, [laughing] quite unique, I guess. I still do this with the Catholic Worker because I consider it a real privilege to be able to support them.
ROBERT BROWN: Did you meet a number of other people through the - well, the Quakers through the Pendle Hill conference, or...
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Oh, so many, yes. I must say that the Catholic Worker to me has always been a kind of a frustrating experience when I went back to Pendle Hill or when I gave talks to Quaker groups or when I went to a meeting - I belonged to Scarsdale Meeting in Westchester, New York for twenty years or so. They did not always compare favorably with the Catholic Worker. Their unconditional pacifism. They did not compromise any of their principles, which Quakers sometimes do because they're also practical people - and sometimes very good business people. Well, people at the Catholic Worker didn't have a penny for themselves but they had their principles aside from the dogma of the Catholic church. They had their principles which sometimes put them in conflict with the Catholic church.
ROBERT BROWN: Really? Were there examples with Dorothy Day and the hierarchy?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Yes. For instance, Archbishop or Cardinal Spellman at the time broke the strike of the gravediggers - I don't know whether you remember that...
ROBERT BROWN: No.
FRITZ EICHENBERG: ...and the Catholic Worker picketed the scabs who broke the strike or tried to break the strike at Spellman's order. So from that moment on, Spellman didn't have much good to say of Dorothy Day. Whereas, LaGuardia was a great admirer of hers and supported her with his own private money - a gift, would send a check, and saw that she was not harassed, because very often the housing authorities were pushed by the merchants of the lower East Side, who thought it was bad business to have a soup line or bread line in front of their little shops. And LaGuardia always protected her, he saw the value of her; and I admired him for it. It was not a popular thing to do. She had friends all over the world, you know. Abbe Pierre, the great French Resistance fighter, who was also a priest. I heard him talk there. She had fascinating speakers. W.H. Auden, the poet, was a friend of hers.
ROBERT BROWN: During the second World War you also did work as an illustrator for commercial publishers. This kept you going? For example, in 1943 you did Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. Was this comfortable work? Or, did you throw yourself into it as well as compared to, say, the work with the Quakers?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: No, there was no conflict there. I've always been a great reader and I've
always been tremendously interested in good literature. I had a very spotty
and short education in the German gymnasium. Literature was not favored by the
administration there. We were taught languages very well, mathematics, chemistry
to a point, but as far as literature was concerned, always neglected. I acquired
these things by myself, by reading constantly, going to lending libraries when
I was a little boy. I read Nietzsche before I understood him. So that my literary
tastes somehow got me in touch with the great Russian writers - Dostoyevsky,
whom I read when I was a teenager; Tolstoy, Turgenev, and so on.
And when I had a chance to illustrate them there was absolutely no conflict of any kind. I welcomed that. To me this was a chance to move into the life of a great writer to inquire why he wrote.
ROBERT BROWN: Did the same apply to the Brontes? How did that opportunity come about? I think you told me Wuthering Heights became your best seller. But how did the opportunity to illustrate it come about?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Harry Abrams, who just died at the age of seventy-four, was then art director of the Book-of-the-Month Club. He got in touch with me - I've forgot the motivation. Maybe I did something else for him in advertising, but I don't remember. He asked me would I illustrate Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, which the Book-of-the-Month Club was publishing as a bonus book coming out in seven hundred, fifty thousand copies, first printing. To me it was a great challenge. I didn't know much about the Bronte sisters but I informed myself very quickly. My interest still, thirty five years later (this was 1943), very lively. I read as much as I can about the Bronte sisters - biographies about Bramwell and so on.
ROBERT BROWN: What was it that captivated you about them?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Well, what always captivates me is the struggle against odds that people put up. When you think how they were raised in this little parsonage in Lancashire, hardly getting out of that environment and writing these two gripping novels which have become classics - not in their lifetimes but after they had died and they all died very young. I think Charlotte was the last to die and she was thirty seven by that time. Two of her sisters died at the age of eight and nine in the parsonage - the same kind of parsonage that Charlotte describes in Jane Eyre. So it was a first-hand experience that came through in Jane Eyre, certainly. In Wuthering Heights, it must have been - that was Emily Bronte - it must have been the very suppressed urge to live a full and passionate life that got her to write that book. And it came through to me as it does to millions of people all over the world. It's been translated into practically every civilized language. And it was written by a very inexperienced little girl, so to speak! And she died at the age of thirty two or so.
ROBERT BROWN: Could we look at some of your illustrations for those books, to get a more concrete idea...
FRITZ EICHENBERG: This is the scene: Heathcliff under The Tree in
Wuthering Heights which I used as the frontispiece, which has really
captured the imagination of millions of people. Wherever I
go, even now, when I give talks - at Newport the other day, or in Wisconsin, or in Mississippi, there's always a group of people coming up with the two books that they picked up somewhere. And it's always Heathcliff under The Tree that they say, "This is the one that I love most." People that I've never met before, that I will never meet again. It's to me a great satisfaction.
ROBERT BROWN: Even to the form of Heathcliff, which it seems to me is echoed in the branches and in the roots - what were you trying to convey?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: The turbulence of the man expressed not only in the wind that blows through
the trees, but is expressed in the swirling clouds behind him. I explained this
the other day in Newport where I gave a talk to the Art Association people.
I said, "The most important thing in work is the dialogue. There has to
be a relationship between the elements I show in each illustration." People
"Well, where's the dialogue here? There's no other person."There's a dialogue between nature in the form of the clouds rushing by, the turbulence in the branches whipped by the wind, in the way he leans against the tree as if he's trying to find support from it. When you look through the rest of my work - and that's not planned. It comes almost intuitively. You see in the other series of illustrations for Wuthering Heights a man facing the wild dogs at the reception he gets at Heathcliff's grange. There's a dialogue going on between those dumb and ferocious animals and the man who tells the story. The next one -- Cathy and the narrator of the dream -- Cathy is trying to get into the house. She wants to see her beloved Heathcliff. Well, the dialogue, if it's not convincing, if you don't see the face of Cathy, the desperation in her face and the reluctance of the narrator of the story to accept her, to let her in, you lose the essence of the story.
ROBERT BROWN: Now, the figure of the narrator in this scene -- how did you conceive him to be? He's extremely disturbed.
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Yes. He's asleep but very much aware -- he's dreaming -- very much aware of what's going on. You are left, when you read the story, with the impression it could be a dream. It could be reality. The British, especially, are enamored of ghosts, you know. And ghosts sometimes they can touch. I just read a story by Isak Dinesen in Gothic Tales where the ghost of a brother sits between his two sisters who are about eighty years old. And they talk to him about the past and he's drinking coffee. Where does reality actually begin?
ROBERT BROWN: But how did you choose this form in depicting the narrator whether he's dreaming or awake?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Well, this is the marvelous thing about being an illustrator of my connotation -- that you have a tremendous opportunity to create life, to create a person, to create a character, to create a situation. You are the director of a scene, let's say. In a film or on the stage it would be the same kind of thing. Here I'm all alone with a little woodblock with my imagination and with a book. Between the three of us we solve the problem of making it touching, convincing in the spirit of the writer. This is to me very important, that I don't violate any of the writer's intentions.
ROBERT BROWN: That means to be accurate or not...
FRITZ EICHENBERG: To be within the spirit of the story. The costumes and the accoutrements are of secondary importance. They're important but not overwhelmingly, as far as I'm concerned. I'm trying here to show them in the costume of their time but it could be also in modern costume. Essentially what I'm trying to do is to create the tension that exists in this case here between three people. Or here the ghostly image of Cathy floating around the desperate Heathcliff who is digging down to reach her body in her grave. You either get it or you don't. And not all of my work is that successful, you know. Sometimes it falls flat; it's not always possible to catch what you want. But in those examples that I show, I naturally try to show the successful conclusion or creation of a scene that corresponds to the spirit of the book.
ROBERT BROWN: Was this your first job with Harry Abrams?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Yes.
ROBERT BROWN: How was he to work with?
FRITZ EICHENBERG: Well, I have apparently the capacity to make friends very
easily and we became friends and we have worked together. In fact, when he died
just a few weeks ago, we had a book planned on Edgar Allen Poe, to use the illustrations
which I had done before in a larger format; to be used as posters, for instance.
END OF INTERVIEW
This transcript is in the public domain and may be used without permission. Quotes and excerpts must be cited as follows: Oral history interview with Fritz Eichenberg, 1979 May 14-Dec. 7, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.