He left Italy in 1941 because of the racial question. A taciturn type of medium height with an enormous blonde moustache, he lived in Milan in a little room in the Albergo del Grillo in Città degli Studi. From his window in summer evenings, you could see couples sauntering amidst the large shrubbery of the Piazza Leonardo da Vinci. Other couples came to the hotel to dance in the garden. He invited me many times, but I never went. The hotel was just a few steps away from the offices of a well-known satiric newspaper. I think this was what inspired him to draw his first sketches.
One evening in Rome I saw him pacing back and forth outside Café Argagno; he was looking for someone to talk to. In that period everything he drew was rounded; the faces, noses, bodies, and he had not yet discovered Picasso and the caprices of Klee. Rome was indifferent to his drawings, being used to something much more concrete; the children of Scipio remained faithful to Grosz, Maccari and others. We had something to eat in a tavern in Via del Tritone; we were both very young and what we wanted most was a woman, not work. He asked me one thing only: if my sketches were made directly in ink. I think this was significant, as his question regarded spontaneity and he had to draw everything meticulously, repeatedly cancelling and cleaning. I still think that this was his graphic dilemma; his lack of spontaneity. I had a hint of this in The Art of Living, when he tried to free himself of his beautiful calligraphy and fell into sterile, quivering strokes of the pen. In those days I would see many drawings, including some originals by Maccari that were precise, immediate and done in fountain pen.
We saw each other often in Milan. He had been excluded on account of the racial question, and he had to work by disguising his distinctive style. He shifted from rounded shapes to triangular ones, with a more uncertain hand than that of today, but nevertheless, his style was unmistakable. There was something between us, something imponderable that prevented us become friends. I sometimes felt antipathy towards him with my Southern exuberance; but he never did, with his weighty and ponderous disposition and self-control.
He understood perfectly and let things be, acting as though nothing had happened. One day I went to his room to see a painting that he had just finished. It was a coloured work in tempera; one of his usual landscapes full of dolls, trams, trees, animals, and old men. That day I realised he would never become a painter. What was missing then and now was emptiness, solitude, that void in art that creates poetry and makes a true art work. His escape to America brought him positive results. America was his country; well-being and camouflaged art, ingenuous, provincial, with French, Mexican and Peruvian undertones. The America of Salvador Dalí, the hairdresser-painter for ladies, the America of Cecil B. DeMille, of Shirley Temple and Coca-Cola.
Americans love those things that leave us perplexed or indifferent, being used as we are to comparing everything with our Classical past. In Italy, Steinberg would have become at most the Pio Semeghini of satire, and in America he made a certain kind of Yankee roar with laughter with his scathing observations. But he would never become a cynic like Grosz, who never made his fortune in America.
He left, putting in his case everything that he could possibly need from Italy; memories of the roads, Leo Longanesi and a piece by Bruno Munari. But Steinberg saw the roads of Italy through the eyes of an American film director. He saw the façades, the ornate baroque-like ornamentations without ever penetrating within, never entering into the inner courtyards. In the same way, he parodied Picasso and Klee without understanding the plastic values of the one and the musicality of the other.
His erudition in modern art was limited to a superficial game of baroque leaf-like tracery and Liberty-styled frames. This is why the Steinberg that one sees on underground billboards and in crowded city department stores is preferable; art here is seen as a game for children.