By Albert Stern / BJV Editor
On my way back from Stockbridge after seeing the Norman Rockwell Museum’s entertaining show of Rube Goldberg’s illustrations, I noticed a billboard advertising another local exhibition featuring fanciful contraptions with lots of moving parts – “Leonardo da Vinci: Machines in Motion,” now on view at the Berkshire Museum.
There are some superficial resemblances between the careers of these very different artists. Both were astonishingly prolific, with Goldberg (1883-1970) producing more than 50,000 illustrations over the 72 years he was active. Goldberg was also a true “Renaissance man” of his time, working in vaudeville, live action and animated film, prose, poetry, songwriting, radio, television, political cartooning, and (at the end of his life) sculpture.
But if Leonardo’s inventions reflected the same aspirant human spirit and ingenuity that, in the modern age, would send men to the moon, the point of Goldberg’s intricate devices was to show, as fellow cartoonist Walt Kelly (of Pogo fame) put it, that “it remains true that those things which make us human are, curiously enough, always close at hand.”
Unlike some of Leonardo’s machines, none of Goldberg’s could actually work if constructed – for one, all of them depend on uncertainty (say, a golf ball hitting a watering can just so) or the agency of a captive human being or animal at some point in the process to complete the chain of events.
What’s more, says the show’s curator Jesse Kowalski, they are not designed to show how man might, through brainpower, transcend his limitations, but rather how “man is always trying to find the easy route, or a way to be greedy.”
The cartoon “inventor” of Goldberg’s machines, Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts, receives his inspiration from flashes of brilliance, but rather mishap. From Goldberg’s wacky descriptions of the machines:
“Professor Butts is operated on for fallen arches and while under the ether thinks of a handy self-working sunshade…”
“Professor Butts strolls between two sets of gangsters having a machine gun battle and is struck by an idea for keeping a buttonhole flower fresh…”
And my favorite:
“Professor Butts goes over Niagara Falls in a collapsible ash-can and hits upon an idea for a simple way to take a picture.” After a sequence involving a mosquito, a mouse, an “Arabian midget,” and various household objects, the description concludes: “If the picture is no good, don’t blame the invention. It’s the way you look.”
As Kowalski explains, Goldberg thought the figures he drew “represented the common man trying to use machines, and actually tried to make machines that didn’t work. He looked at humanity as this thing that was constant. Machines were evolving.”
Kowalski notes that when Goldberg came of age in the late 19th century, people traveled by boat, horse, train, and increasingly by that newfangled contraption, the safety bicycle. By the end of his long life in 1970, the illustrator had seen automobiles and jet planes transform Americans’ lives and the landscape they inhabited, and man had even walked on the moon.
“Goldberg understood how the average man felt about technology,” writes Kowalski in his exhibition notes, “not only the wonder and delight around the usefulness of a new invention, but also the difficulty and frustration that came with using the devices.”
As the editorial cartoons on view at the Rockwell demonstrate, Goldberg also understood the average man’s anxiety at the sweeping changes that transformed political life and international affairs during the 20th century. A staunch opponent of Nazism in the 1930s and later Communism, Goldberg won a Pulitzer Prize for “Peace Today,” which depicts a family relaxing at home atop an atomic bomb teetering upon a precipice of “world control” above an abyss of “world destruction.” (Kowalski acknowledges that Goldberg’s political cartooning can sometimes seem a bit heavy-handed to a contemporary viewer.)
As befits such a singular character, Goldberg’s Jewish journey was also unconventional. He was born Reuben Garrett Lucius Goldberg in San Francisco, the third of seven children. His father, Max, immigrated to California from Germany, worked as a bank appraiser and political operative, and was at various times San Francisco’s police chief and fire commissioner – certainly not the kinds of jobs one might expect an immigrant Jew to hold in the far western United States in the late 19th century.
“Goldberg remembered how his father would hang out with politicians and real estate people,” says Kowalski, adding that the cartoonist enjoyed making fun of wheeling-and-dealing machers in his work throughout his career.
Young Reuben always wanted to be an illustrator (he was largely self-taught), but was pressured by his father to enroll in University of California-Berkley’s engineering program to secure a more practical way of making a living. Upon graduating in 1904, Goldberg worked as a draftsman for San Francisco’s sewer department but, after some success cartooning, left the West Coast for greater opportunity back East.
In 1907, Goldberg began cartooning for the New York Evening Mail, for which he produced a wide variety of comic strips such as “Boob McNutt” and “Ike & Mike,” and one-panel gags such as “Foolish Questions” – their humor value, I have to say, has dwindled a bit over the last hundred years. However, his most popular cartoon – the weekly “The Inventions of Lucifer G. Butts, A.K.,” which introduced the Rube Goldberg Machine in 1912 – continues to inspire filmmakers and YouTubers, many of whose Goldberg-esque inventions that actually do work. Kowalski has compiled several of these on an entertaining video loop being shown alongside the drawings. (In Israel, Haifa’s Technion holds an annual Rube Goldberg machine contest for international high school students.)
Upon arriving in New York City, Goldberg’s success was instant and incredibly remunerative, earning him $75,000 per year in the mid-1910s. By the early 1920s, Goldberg signed a contract that brought in $200,000 annually (more than $2 million today) for his cartoons, and had become a household name. Kowalski writes in the introduction to the show: “In 1931, he became the first (and only) person to have his name listed as an adjective in the dictionary, when Merriam-Webster added ‘Rube Goldberg to describe ‘accomplishing by complex means what seemingly could be done simply.’” (It also didn’t hurt Goldberg’s bottom line that his wife, Irma, was heiress to the White Rose supermarket fortune.)
“His job as an illustrator was to tell a story without words,” says Kowalski. “He was not the best artist, but as an illustrator, he was absolutely one of the best. He was always catching on to what was going on in popular culture – for example, he first popularized the word ‘baloney.’”
He wasn’t just an observer of technological advances – he was an early adopter of every new media that enabled him to reach larger audiences. After a brief career performing in vaudeville, Goldberg branched out into animation, which was a form of moviemaking then in its infancy. Kowalski says he ultimately worked on 70 animated films, as well as scripting the first Three Stooges short, and was friendly with Charlie Chaplin, George Gershwin, Harry Houdini, and Groucho Marx. In 1948, he hosted a television program on WPIX, just two weeks after the New York station began broadcasting.
In 1938, Goldberg started to contribute three political cartoons each week to the New York Sun, increased to five weekly cartoons after the end of World War II. After shifting his focus to political cartooning, Goldberg became alarmed by anti-Semitic hate mail he started to receive, and strove to protect his family by having his sons change their surname. (According to one account, Goldberg’s actions were also influenced by stories of European anti-Semitism his immigrant parents had shared with him when he was growing up.)
As recounted in the Times of Israel: “Goldberg called his sons, Thomas and George, into his office. Noting that they would be going away to college, he asked them to change their last name, under the pretext of not wanting them to stand in his shadow. Thomas, the older son, chose his brother’s name for his new last name, becoming Thomas George. His brother followed suit, becoming George George.”
George George enrolled at Williams College, and later in life donated a trove of his father’s work to its Museum of Art, the source of several of the machine drawings and comic strips on view at the Rockwell. (George George went on to write for television shows like Gunsmoke and Bonanza, and is also credited as screenwriter of the 1980s art house film My Dinner With Andre. His brother Thomas was a noted abstract artist.)
Many of the political cartoons and archival material were selected from a substantial 2014 donation of to the Rockwell Museum from the Famous Artists School, which offered correspondence courses in various types of illustration and design. Norman Rockwell was one of the founding artists, and Goldberg worked for the school starting in 1948 as an instructor in editorial cartooning.
Rube Goldberg seems to be having a cultural moment – a successful exhibit mounted by the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia is currently touring museums around the country, and a kid-centric version of that show is on view at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh through early May. Kowalski worked on the Rockwell exhibition for approximately 18 months, and has curated a concise overview that touches on Goldberg’s career highlights in a way that illuminates the breadth of his accomplishment working in a multitude of modes.
To use a machine metaphor, Goldberg was a dynamo, propelled by a desire to stay both productive and relevant. Says Kowalski: “At a certain point, he saw that illustrators who were once well-known were being forgotten. He thought that some of their ideas did not stay with the times. He always tried to stay with the times.”
"The Art and Wit of Rub Goldberg" will be on view through June 9 at the Norman Rockwell Museum, located at 9 Glendale Road / Route 183 in Stockbridge MA. For more information, visit www.nrm.org .