Art, booze, and women: An interview with Roman Genn
By Bernard Chapin
Roman Genn is one of the most distinctive cartoonists in the world with a style both striking and vivacious. In my opinion, his bravery and irreverence are a crucial factor behind his artistic success and excellence. Those of us who read National Review have long been aware of his work as he is their principal cartoonist. A special store devoted to his prints has been created at their website. He also maintains rgenn.com where one can read his full biography and also examine a significant number of his caricatures and oil paintings. His work has appeared at most of the major media outlets such as The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times. Luckily for us, Roman's big personality and sense of humor are on display in the interview below.
BC: Roman, the first thing I have to ask you about is your new role as a big time artist. You've just had a major show out in Los Angeles so should we now refer to you as an artist formerly known as a caricaturist? In all seriousness, does the art world look down on cartoonists?
Roman Genn: Yes. In fact Leonardo still suffers greatly from that reputation, and Goya and Daumier also never managed to recover. To avoid their pitiful fate, I spend most of my time in front of the mirror practicing achromatic utterances on Foucault and collecting the wrinkles in the middle of my forehead in the sagacious manner of One Who Has Learned the Laws of Nature. I need to work on my "tired of life" smile some more, though. It still doesn't match my black pants.
BC: How do critics react to your political orientation? Was, "the house cartoonist for National Review," used by them to alert potential buyers that a buck for you is a buck for the right wing?
Roman Genn: A buck for me will unquestionably go to traditionally liberal causes: Booze & Women! (Well...one woman.) No one suspects a thing - I have skillfully camouflaged my dreadful Ludendorffian beliefs with libertarian social values. Besides, I heavily rely on human vanity – for, next to war, art is the greatest way to immortalize a reputation.
BC: As a conservative who is probably speaking to conservatives in this interview, what do you make of the art world? Is it as goofy as we imagine it to be?
Roman Genn: Are you in fact suggesting that the stalagmites of dried dreck garnished with polysyllable waffling are less profound than Velasquez's de Gongora?!!! But seriously, there are many excellent artists working today who unfortunately lack the indispensable gifts necessary for demagoguery and self-promotion, while the bad ones are full of passionate intensity. Roger Kimball and James Panero do an excellent job covering those trends for The New Criterion.
BC: Speaking of right wing, how would you characterize your views today? What's your opinion of Mr. Bush?
BC: Pardon my ignorance in regards to the actual production process, but I must ask you as to how your work is created. Do you paint, ink, or sketch upon a large canvass and then reduce the product to whatever size is most convenient?
Roman Genn: She Who Inspires promised me a kiss for anything in oil and thru a complicated mathematical calculation I came to the conclusion that ten pieces would multiply the reward tenfold, thus the current series "Gloria mundi" came to be.
I try to paint from life, but I had such a miserable experience with Bonaparte, who wouldn't sit still and kept mumbling about catching a cold and something incoherent about Wellington (my French is not that good, not to mention that awful Corsican accent of his), so I finally decided to work from photos, videos and to harass historians, soldiers and journalists into consulting me on technicalities. For example, former federal judge Abraham Sofaer (who was in the unique position to sit in judgment of Ariel Sharon) was vital in providing an invaluable first hand observation on the General's personality. For Orwell's portrayal I mostly relied on the superb writings of Robert Conquest, David Pryce-Jones and Christopher Hitchens, in addition to Orwell's own, to guide me. Some historians would suggest different directions—Bernard Lewis recommended Liddell Hart, but Pryce-Jones advised to go with Aldington for a study of T.E. Lawrence. The Neruda piece was prompted by a lovely elegy from Dorfman in the Los Angeles Times, titled "Neruda's verses howl against terror of today and yesterday." A bloodthirsty reactionary like me couldn't ignore such peculiar admiration of a Stalinist lackey!
BC: What is your work routine like?
Roman Genn: Nine to five (9pm till about 5 am, that is) I spend listening to books on tape—usually Paul Johnson, William Manchester or some other wise Brit. The first half of the day is usually wasted contemplating the murder of the leaf blowers and tree trimmers, which I think should be made legal in the State of California!
BC: Some of your pieces, such as the clever depictions of Napoleon Bonaparte and Winston Churchill that you just alluded to, rely heavily on the viewer having a background knowledge of history. Does this fact limit your commercial appeal? It seems to me that the general population is about as interested in history as they are in quadratic equations.
Roman Genn: Yes, Sir Winston's life and achievements are undoubtedly less interesting than Ms. Hilton's current legal predicament. As Liddell Hart put it to J.M. Scammell, "I've done enough knight-errantry of forlorn heroes to know the difficulty. If I had done Hannibal instead of Scipio, or Lee instead of Sherman, I should have sold double or treble." Pity he doesn't know we still read him.
BC: I have to ask you, as I know that you're as much of a history fanatic as I am, what is it about the past that so enthralls you? How might you sell our need to examine antiquity to a skeptic? I honestly believe it is as big a conduit for the understanding of humans as is psychology.
Roman Genn: I derive immense pleasure from saying "not quite, actually in 1815..." every time someone screams "Unprecedented!" Psychology is not completely detached though, probably the flaws and ambitions of those who have the power to influence the currents of nations determine the course of events more that anything else. But our inability to gain knowledge from history is staggering nonetheless. For instance, it is my deepest belief (and here I differ from my fellow conservatives) that modern democracies are incapable of fighting effectively and wining a war of any duration against nonwestern opponents. (Notable exceptions being, what Bernard Lewis calls Kuwaitus interruptus and the Israeli wars), reasons being primarily, the complete lack of understanding of ideological warfare, as well as the inability to control the home front. And yet no lessons have been learned and no changes have been made. It is our great fortune thus far that our current adversaries do not employ Mansteins and Guderians, but that may very well change, so who knows? All of this, plus other minor things, lead me to believe that this is going be a long and interesting century....
BC: Is there a period that you enjoy studying more than any other? What is it your favorite?
Roman Genn: Probably the period from 1929 to 1945, the "subterranean world, where
BC: As one who experienced the madness of the Soviet Union first hand, are you at all worried about the effect the Nanny State has had on America? If government "has to move" every time somebody is hurt, then how can we avoid becoming mini-Soviets ourselves?
BC: Does any part of you lament the eventual loss of Russia? Its population seems to be declining with each passing minute. Do you still think of it as your homeland?
Roman Genn: All of it is a clever ruse, designed to deceive Mark Steyn. When the Motherland calls, billions of patriotic sperms are going to aufmarsch from of their assembly areas, advancing en masse and, swiftly overwhelming the intended uterus, heroically plant the Imperial Tricolor in the ovum! As for being nostalgic-I definitely miss homicidal alcoholics with delusions of grandeur.
Bernard Chapin is a writer living in Chicago. He is the author of Escape from Gangsta Island, and is currently at work on a book concerning women. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.