Just up the island from her in Manhattan, the president delivered his heated news conference last Tuesday in the gilded lobby of Trump Tower, drawing an equivalence between white supremacists and neo-Nazi protesters and their antifa counterprotesters. Right then, Mouly committed to a hard pivot.
She put out the rapid call to her regular stable of first-responder artists, and by the next morning had dozens of political sketches in hand. She culled them to seven or eight options, met with the magazine’s editor, David Remnick, and the decision was made: The following week’s cover by Baltimore-based artist David Plunkert, titled “Blowhard,” would show the president floating in open water, futilely puffing into his Ku Klux Klan hood of a sail (or metaphorically speaking, “pathetically” using the KKK as political tool, Mouly says). By Friday, upon the cover’s digital release, the image would go viral, prompting the New Yorker to order an extra 5,000 copies for airport kiosks and newsstands.
This, in a four-day slice, is life for some magazine editors in the age of Trump. We have moved into a phase in which the New Yorker’s art was just one of at least four internationally prominent magazine covers last week that invoked KKK and Nazi symbology to comment upon the White House through bold, graphically stark illustration.
For the Economist, Spain-based artist Jon Berkeley rendered Trump bellowing into a white megaphone pierced by two black holes, to resemble a Ku Klux Klan hood. Meanwhile, New York-based illustrator Edel Rodriguez pulled off a two-fer, drawing an American flag-swaddled silhouette delivering a Nazi salute for Time magazine’s cover, and painting the president beneath a tall white hood in a piece titled “Trump’s True Face,” for the front of the Germany-based publication Der Spiegel.
All four covers rapidly made the rounds on social media, but what we are seeing behind them is also intriguing: Magazine editors and illustrators — some of whom have strong ties to foreign shores and the immigrant experience — are feeling compelled to comment on Trump, and that artwork is finding large audiences hungry for such pictorially concise content.
Countless words have been expelled to try to deconstruct, defend or diagnose Trump, says the Paris-born Mouly, who also edits the Resist! newspaper that has spotlighted female artists and women’s rights issues since the inauguration. Sometimes, when a historically polarizing figure is in power, she notes, it is visual art that can speak most directly to readers, cutting through the verbal swamp like a precision strike.
“Art is a galvanic response that connects with you through the gut,” says Mouly, who has published covers this year satirizing Trump’s interactions with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the firing of James B. Comey as FBI director and campaign revelations sourced to Donald Trump Jr. “Part of their power is in the concision that written pieces can seldom have. Because Plunkert’s image is concise, it is a catalyst that liberates you to react.”
Mouly notes, too, that amid all the attention paid to the president’s Charlottesville response, the most “liked” tweet ever — sent by former president Barack Obama on Aug. 12 — included a photo of him looking up at schoolchildren. That, she says, underscores the strength of an engaging picture on social media.
Mouly has shepherded provocative New Yorker covers for nearly a quarter-century — including Barry Blitt’s “The Politics of Fear” (which satirically depicted the Obamas as radicals) in 2008 — and her husband, “Maus” creator Art Spiegelman, painted the magazine’s controversial “Hasidic kiss” cover in 1993. Yet she does not allow Nazi and KKK symbols on her cover without weighty consideration, in what she views as extreme times.
In the Trump era, “we can’t let the images be too timid,” she told Comic Riffs last week. “When the president of the United States equivocates on matters of hate and xenophobia, artists should not.”
Plunkert, the “Blowhard” artist, says that he generally steers away from illustrating political themes, but that the president’s remarks after Charlottesville moved him to respond through art. “The actual story being illustrated is a bit of a national tragedy and an embarrassment,” he told The Post last week.
Berkeley, the Economist artist, created his cover in the same week that his native Barcelona was hit by terrorism. “We live in interesting times, don’t we?” he says. “Not just Trump, but a general wave of political lunacy that’s been going on worldwide. I’ve been posting editorial cartoons to my Facebook page for a couple of months just to get all this stuff off my chest.”
And Rodriguez, who was born in Cuba, was already drawing Trump beneath a Klan hood last year for Der Spiegel during Trump’s debates with Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and after Trump insulted the Khan “gold star” military family.
“At this point, putting him in a KKK hood is liberating. There’s no leap to make,” the New York artist told HuffPost last week. “He has stood up for white supremacists, Nazis and the KKK like no president before. It’s shameful and disgusting.”
One viral Time cover that Rodriguez created in October, titled “Total Meltdown” and depicting Trump’s face melting like candle wax, was named the cover of the year by the American Society of Magazine Editors. At the awards ceremony last February, Time Editor in Chief Nancy Gibbs told the gathering: “The word ‘magazine’ shares a root with the medieval French word for a warehouse, a treasury, or a place to store ammunition. It suggests a container for that which is useful, valuable, sometimes dangerous.
“This is where we all live now, and why magazines matter more than ever.”