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Victor “Vicky” Weisz: A permanent sense of sorrow

“He really wanted to use the cartoon to change the world, to try to engineer opinions.”

On 22 February 1966, the political cartoonist Victor “Vicky” Weisz took an overdose of sleeping pills and died at his flat in north London. He was 52. The previous day, he had filed a portrait of Denis Healey, a gracefully limned arrangement of simple, black lines and smudged eyebrows, which was used on the cover of that week’s New Statesman– the same issue that would carry his obituary.

Writing hastily to deadline, the then editor of the NS, Paul Johnson, praised Vicky’s generosity, wit and moral judgement. “Vicky loved his subjects,” he wrote, “even – perhaps above all – those whom he flayed most mercilessly. And they loved him.” A flurry of letters arrived the following week. Some doubted Vicky’s elan. The screenwriter Heinrich Fraenkel wrote of a lifelong weariness: “For those of us who knew Vicky as a young man, even as a boy, he never seemed to have been young at all.”

Weisz was born in Berlin in April 1913 (were he still alive, he’d be celebrating his centenary with the New Statesman). He studied at the Berlin University of the Arts and drew sports and theatre caricatures for the radical journal 12 Uhr Blatt until it was taken over by the Nazis in 1933. His father, Dezso Weisz, was a Jewish-Hungarian goldsmith who committed suicide in 1928.

Fearing the rise of Hitler (whom he had lambasted in the press), Vicky fled and arrived in London in 1935. He freelanced for the Evening Standard, Daily Telegraph and News Chronicle, where he became a staff cartoonist in 1941.

Vicky was assiduous and rarely satisfied with his work. Michael Foot called him “the best cartoonist in the world” yet the man doubted his own talent. He drew Hugh Gaitskell as a fiery, angular knight and John Foster Dulles as a refrigerator; he transformed Harold Macmillan into “Supermac”. Politicians relished seeing themselves depicted by Vicky and offered him notes.

Quick draw: a cartoon showing Vicky caricaturing Harold Macmillan, first published Octovber 1958.

Every Monday, at precisely 12 noon, Vicky would arrive at the NS offices on Great Turnstile to present his latest cartoons. In person, he appeared like one of his drawings: a small, broad-jowled man with a sweeping comb-over. He wore thick, round glasses and dressed in black. “He really wanted to use the cartoon to change the world, to try to engineer opinions,” said the cartoonist Stan Franklin. Norman Mackenzie, writing in the centenary issue of the NS, recalled Vicky having “a delightful sense of entertainment but a permanent sense of sorrow”.

One letter the NS received after his death came from Bishop William Simon, soon to be archbishop of Wales, who had written to Vicky in August 1960 to compliment him on a Macmillan cartoon. He received no reply. Four months later, on 25 December, a parcel appeared on Cathedral Green. It was the original drawing, wrapped in a parcel almost as large as the artist who had sent it, “with Christmas wishes”.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What makes us human?

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis