It’s not easy being a satirist. Rudolf von Leyden (1908-1983), a German-born cartoonist who lived most of his life in Bombay, is the main figure in this cartoon self-portrait.
Surrounded by discarded drafts and piles of newspapers with depressing and terrifying headlines, he desperately searches for inspiration. Meanwhile his editor pokes his head round the door demanding “something really funny this week.”
This is just one of a collection of von Leyden’s satirical cartoons at the British Library. They were made in the 1930s and 40s, and the library has both original drawings (WD4491) and a set of the cartoons (P2349) as they were published in Bombay newspapers at the time.
The cartoon series in The Illustrated Weekly of India ran from the mid-30s to the late 40s, a tumultuous time in Indian and world history. Both von Leyden’s personal life and the cartoons themselves give a fascinating insight into this period.
Making a mark
It’s not entirely clear why von Leyden moved to India in 1933. He was born in 1908 in Berlin to a middle-class family, the younger of two sons, and lived in Germany throughout his youth. Of course, as a man of Jewish descent and with leftist political interests, it would have been dangerous for him to have stayed in the country for long after the rise of Nazism, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that that was his main motivation for choosing India, or that he was fleeing persecution at the time that he left.
Rudolf’s elder brother, Albrecht, had been living and working in Bombay since 1927. Rudolf had just finished his studies (he received his PhD in geology from the University of Göttingen in 1932) and was looking to embark on his own career. Perhaps it just seemed an opportune moment to start a new adventure. Whatever the reasons, Rudolf arrived in Bombay in 1933.
He swiftly left geology behind, and began working in publicity a textiles firm, but also soon showed his interest in visual art. He set up the Leyden Commercial Art Studio, produced watercolour scenes on his travels around India, and began working on his series of political cartoons.
He was a central figure in the art scene in Bombay, working as the main art critic of The Times of India, collecting Indian artworks from various periods, organising exhibitions, and actively promoting young, contemporary artists. He was a contributing editor of the leading art review MARG from 1946 and served as an adviser for the acquisitions and art commissions of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research which owned one of the most important collections of post-independence Indian art.
He also became a collector of, and later an authority on, antique board games and Indian playing cards. It was, however, as an art critic that he was probably best known in his lifetime.
Von Leyden was clearly a man of great energy and full of enthusiasm for his new life in India. Krishen Khanna, one of the artists who had been supported by von Leyden as a young man, reminisced: “[His] wanderlust was something everybody knew about. [He] thought nothing of going to the most inaccessible of places to see an old sculpture or a disused and ruined temple. Sleeping under an open sky and eating what the local population would provide with relish. […] [He] seemed to take it all so blithely. ‘While Lolly and I were trekking in Kashmir, we spent a day climbing Hara Kukh’ as if that was some little hillock on [their] way. So when I expressed my surprise at [his] prowess for climbing, [he] came out with a long list of places which [he] said [he] had to traverse as a part of [his] doctorate in geology. My goodness, I’d always thought [he] had a doctorate in art history.”
The position of a German national in British India was somewhat precarious, even before the outbreak of the war. Many were arrested as enemy aliens from 1939. Von Leyden had managed to acquire a British passport by that time, and used his contacts to help other German-speaking emigres to navigate the British authorities.
One fellow cartoonist, Walter Langhammer, and his wife Käthe were rescued from exile and arrest when von Leyden sent Langhammer’s cartoons to several influential people in Bombay, to prove his political disposition and loyalty to the British government. It worked, and both Walter and Käthe were able to return to Bombay, where Käthe worked as a censor for the British Army for the remainder of the war.
It seems that von Leyden himself may have been able to use his own cartoons and position at The Times of India to protect himself from suspicion in a similar way.
All of von Leyden’s own cartoons were signed with the pseudonym ‘Denley,’ and were vehemently anti-German during the war. The gallery owner Kekoo Gandhy, a personal friend of von Leyden’s, attributed his use of a pseudonym to modesty. But, the specific choice of the very English-sounding Denley must have been partially motivated by the desire to fit in at the Times and to distance his cartoons from his German roots. (Denley is, of course, also an anagram of Leyden.)
This all goes to highlight von Leyden’s unusual position, straddling several worlds: he was a European in a colonial space, but nonetheless with an ambivalent relationship to British colonial powers due to his German roots; a political émigré, part of a small but significant community of European Jews in cosmopolitan Bombay during the war; and a man deeply interested and invested in Indian culture and especially the flowering of Indian contemporary art.
His cartoons are characteristic for their freshness and sense of urgency, which is especially evident in the artist proofs. You can imagine von Leyden finishing his latest effort and cycling pell-mell across Bombay (as he apparently often did to get his work to the newspaper office in time to go to press) with the ink still wet.
They all share a signature style, featuring a bold black outline, minimal colouration, and a gentle political wit that poked fun at local government as well as heads of state, military leaders, and the ‘resident foreigner’ in India, including himself.
During the war years, the cartoons were jingoistically anti-German, albeit with an irreverent eye on international affairs. One example is captioned “Moscow Ballet” and features Anthony Eden, Viacheslav Molotov, and US Secretary of State Cordell Hull as three ballerinas performing for their allied leaders (you can make out Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt in the front row), while a disgruntled Hitler turns to Goebbels, saying: “I thought you told me they could not keep in step…?”
This fragile corps de ballet didn’t last long, of course, and von Leyden’s post-war cartoons show the beginnings of Cold War tensions. One casts Stalin in the role of Zeus, depicted as a huge moustached bull, carrying Europa off eastwards on his back (to the despair of the other Grecian maidens, Truman, Atlee, and de Gaulle).
Another major theme from this period was Indian independence. Von Leyden was unsparing in his depictions of the divides in Indian society, with several images focussing on the conflicts and unwillingness to compromise between different groups.
A 1946 cartoon shows ‘The House of India’s Freedom’ precariously balanced on scaffolding as construction work grinds to a halt, the two builders, Hindu and Muslim, refusing to speak to one another, and the solid foundation stones of unity, compromise, and goodwill languishing unused. Another pokes fun at the state bureaucracy, depicting politicians feverishly drafting plans and proposals by candlelight, as a larger-than-life Clive of India muses: ‘Fancy having so much trouble giving it back…’
In the family
In the late 30s, von Leyden’s parents also moved to Bombay to join their two sons, fleeing the worsening situation in Nazi Germany. It turns out that this was a whole family of amateur artists.
After the war, in 1948, the four of them held a joint charity exhibition. Their father exhibited his sculptures, their mother watercolours, Albrecht, who was apparently the best painter of the lot, showed oil paintings and Rudolf sent his cartoons.
The Times carried an exhibition review, which claimed: “All four of the Leydens are amateurs. In Bombay one has become so accustomed to seeing professionals putting on shows of amateurish merit that it is refreshing to come across a family of amateurs presenting an exhibition of professional standard.”
On Rudolf’s cartoons, and making reference to his fame as an art critic, the reviewer wrote: “Of the many inherent injustices of life in our civilisation some of the most galling are that pupils cannot give marks to their teachers, that motorists cannot summon the traffic constable, and that artists do not get a chance to criticise the art critic. Once in a lifetime there comes this chance but – alas – paradoxically, the victim at hand is not the sort of fellow one would relish running down.”
RV Leyden’s cartoons are outstanding for their political wit. In the execution of the actual drawings he works so hard to overcome his lack of training that, in the end, most of his cartoons are better drawn than the average “professionals”.’
This guest blog post is by Mollie Arbuthnot, the Visual Arts section’s doctoral placement. Her project focuses on political cartoons during the early 20th century.
This article first appeared on the British Library’s Asian and African Studies blog