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  • Writer's pictureSteven Heller

Peter de Sève’s Treasure Trove

An inspiring new exhibit titled “Under the Influence; The Private Collection of Peter de Sève” is currently on view at the Society of Illustrators in New York City. Although the show does include a handful of Peter de Sève‘s own work, its focus is to share his inspirational private collection of artwork by his heroes, past and present. Included is a wide range of generations, including originals by Edmund Dulac, Saul Steinberg, Frank Frazetta, Ronald Searle, T.S. Sullivant, A.B. Frost, Ana Juan and more. The show will be hanging until March 17. The provocative title led me to ask de Sève about his collecting habits and passions.

How long have you been collecting cartoon imagery? First, let me tackle the cartoon part of your question. I would say that while there are a good number of pieces in the show that fall under that umbrella: Rarebit Fiend, Krazy Kat and Gahan Wilson’s “Nut’s” to name a few, I would say the unifying element is something less specific. Standing back and looking at the show, I’m struck by a common thread throughout. Almost every piece seems to be drawn from the imagination. Most of the artwork I’ve collected has straddled the line between realism and fantasy. Cartooning with an eye to reality.

You have quite a selection of 19th and 20th century pieces. Your exhibit is called “Under the Influence.” Who are the most influential in your collection? Almost without exception, there is something in every single piece that I have either learned from or covet or both. I suppose if I had a gun to my head I would say Arthur Rackham has probably had the greatest affect on me. His work walks that tight-wire between fantasy and reality. His Alice in Wonderland watercolors, for instance, simultaneously showcase his ability to draw a young girl realistically but have her seated with an amazing array of clearly invented characters like the Hatter, the Hare and the Doormouse. They come from two different parts of Rackham’s brain, but because of the way he draws them, exist perfectly in the same world. Rackham’s watercolor technique has always been a touchstone for me as well. Like mine, his color is in the service of his drawing rather than the other way around. The drawing always takes the drivers seat.

When you review the history of illustration there are so many genres and methods. Your focus seems to be on pen and ink. Why? I think a large part of that is due to simple economics. I have never really been able to afford major paintings or drawings. In the end though, it’s worked out very nicely since I am in love with the sketch. Preliminary drawings are so much more interesting to me than finished pieces. I love to see the half-erased pencil lines in the original idea which often reveal the artist’s thinking process, so much more so than the final, rendered piece. Those initial drawings often have more juice to them, as if the artist couldn’t wait to commit the idea to paper. Finishing the artwork can often be a long desperate slog to try to recapture the lightning in the bottle that was captured in the very first doodle. That’s the way it is for me, anyway.

Do you favor social over political? Satiric over comic? I don’t think I have a particular preference, as long as I recognize the subject. For instance, I would never buy a Hirschfeld if I didn’t recognize who it was he was caricaturing. No, I don’t have a Hirschfeld. (sigh)

How do you display your collection when not in a gallery room? Exactly the same way as in the show, two or three stacked rows along a wall, “salon style,” though not everything fits in our house. A collector realizes he or she has gone overboard when beautiful artwork is living in binders and drawers. Many of the drawings on display at SI right now are hanging in frames for the first time since I purchased them.

Whose work would you like to acquire that has not been as of yet? You don’t know where I can pick up a nice Picasso doodle, do you?

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