Searle Cartoons Have Wit & Bite

The artist offers wry observations of human (and feline) nature for American and British magazines

DEVOTEES of Ronald Searle can now indulge in viewing an entire collection of his cartoons rather than glimpsing them individually, thanks to a current display at the Heineman Galleries in New York. It's also an opportunity to see the master's work in person, as it were, and maybe even invest in some. Heineman, the owner, is one of Searle's most devoted fans and is usually there to fill you in on interesting background and detail.

Searle, 74, lives in a tiny village in Provence, France. He doesn't travel much, but he still works six days a week, filling the pages of British and American magazines with whimsical cats and distracted musicians. He also continues as a political artist, and there his work is less sanguine. Like many cartoonists, he has also had some success in writing. But he finds drawing cats and other subjects so much more delightful that it dominates his life's work.

His career began at the legendary and now- defunct Punch magazine in 1946. He had just returned from World War II in the Pacific where he had been a prisoner of the Japanese.

One of his most powerful books (``To the Kwai and Back,'' 1986), is his artistic recollection of being part of the British Army forced to build the bridge over the River Kwai. He made his longest-lasting foray into the British consciousness with his St. Trinians books in the l950s, stories of a presumably imaginary English girls' school whose students are notably unlovable. He has drawn for years for The New Yorker, but his American triumph came with ``Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines'' (1965), made into a film featuring the unwieldy and fanciful airplanes he designed himself.

Though widely copied by other artists, Searle's self-established pen-and-ink style remains immediately identifiable. It has a sort of drafty lack of organization. At the same time, however, his drawings quickly tell a story, usually whimsically but with undertones of arch unpleasantness. They are impossible to define.

But the cats are at the center of his interest and affection. They are large-bottomed creatures, self-satisfied and infinitely wiser than the surrounding humans.

At the same time, Searle can be mordantly serious, illustrating the horrors of war and poverty with astonishing topicality in serious periodicals. Perhaps his war experiences are still very much with him. He draws with his left hand because his right was damaged by the Japanese in 1944, after they discovered that he was drawing in the prison camp on the River Kwai.

* Searle's drawings are on display in New York through May 14 at Heineman Gallery, 594 Broadway, (212-334-0821).

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