Interview with Ranan Lurie, political cartoonists and the artist behind the Uniting Painting

RananLurie-63c43Ranan Lurie has been described as « the Cartoon-Caesar », « the king of American political cartoonists ». Not only does he hold the record as the most widely syndicated political cartoonist in the world, he has also received many awards. The United States Senate granted him the unprecedented honour of an exhibition of his political art, sponsored jointly by the Republicans and the Democrats.Little did I know about his notoriety and his list of merits when, by pure accident, I first met him in New York last year. He kindly invited me to come to the opening of his United Nations painting exhibition, and I must say that I have never attended an event of this calibre.
Upon my next visit to the Big Apple in early March of this year, I wanted to know more about the man and the artist, so I called him up. « Since you are not staying long in the city, can you come on Sunday morning ? » he kindly asked. Despite his notoriety and celebrity, Ranan Lurie has remained simple and modest. He received me in his beautiful apartment on the 60th floor of one of New York’s most famous high-rise buildings, where he lives with his wife.
Why did you start doing political caricatures ?
At the age of 4, I was in kindergarten, and I used to draw well. The little girls used to be impressed, so I presume it was my tool to impress them. When I was 16, I started to publish them professionally. It just took off very well. Today, I wonder if nature did not force me to go into cartooning, as I never had any chance of doing anything else. It went so well that it seemed stupid not to continue, so I just continued. It was like being born into a racing car. The car kept on winning the whole the time, so I never got out of the car !
Seeing your long career, and all the important things that have happened, what is the event that marked you the most ?
This is a very broad question. So many things… I personally think that the most important thing in this world is creativity, and that creativity is a form of prayer. Pleasing God is to be creative.
So you mean that creativity is a gift from God ?
I am not religious in a traditional sense, but I believe that we were created for a purpose. The purpose is not to eat a chocolate or drink an espresso, etc. All these are fun things to do in life, but the purpose is really to create things from nothing, to add your value to history. The fact is, we remember Rembrandt, but we do not remember the man who made the frames for his pictures.
If you can create something from nothing-and this is your purpose in life-then the Almighty-no matter whether you are Christian, Jewish or Muslim-is very pleased with you. You have fulfilled your functions. So the principle in my life was and still is always to create new things, whether it was cartooning or inventing some technical things. For instance, I have a patent on rear break-lights for cars.
You have invented a rear-break light for cars ! That has nothing to do with cartooning…
Do not forget that, in my business, my kind of drawing is to invent something new everyday.
How do you find the ideas ?
I do not know, but I’m good at it. I trust myself. Do you see these two shelves of books on the top of my bookshelf ? These are the Guinness World Book of Records from 1980 till 1999. Every year I have an entry there. Every day, I can create a cartoon that interests a lot of newspapers worldwide-for instance, in Switzerland it was the Neue Zurcher Zeitung (and many smaller papers too but the big one was the Neue Zurcher Zeitung). In France, I worked for Paris Match ; Le Figaro. Le Figaro is my favourite paper.
So, if you can create everyday a new idea, if you take this « idea-machine » and say « O.K. Forget about cartooning. Today I want you to invent something, for instance, against cancer », I think the idea-machine can do it. I’m built for it. Over so many years, day after day, it is like a very sharp pencil. So, one day, I was driving at night in grey and rainy weather. I did not see that the car in front of me had stopped and I could not tell how far away it was. I almost had an accident and said to myself : « We have to have a way to solve this problem ». And I found a way to solve it : the stronger you press on the brakes the stronger the lights glow. So when the light is very indistinct you know that it’s far away and when it is very bright you know it’s close to you.
If somebody told you that you are a « savant fou », what would you say ? Savant fou is somebody who can invent all kind of things. You could say like Professor Tournesol in Tintin, for example.
Yes, but the ideas have to be real ideas. They have to be pragmatic, something that you can feel and touch. It just happens to be that my faith put me in the field of creating ideas for cartoons. It could have put my ideas into creating buildings as an architect-or into medicine. As long as one has to find solutions to situations. To explain every political situation to the people is like opening up a safe or a complicated mechanism, so you open the door and say : « Voila ! This is really what is happening, for instance, in Iran. »
Foreign Affairs Cartoon
You are explaining a complicated political fact to the people in the street. How does it work or how do you do it ?
You see, first of all you have to know what you want to say. In order to know what you want to say, you have to add knowledge. There is a certain routine to collect the knowledge. It happens day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. It eventually accumulates into being a very knowledgeable regime. Then you have techniques for analysing it, comparing it to previous situations. I have a small staff and I consult with them. I can also pick up the phone and talk to an editor in Zurich, or in Oslo, in London, in Los Angeles who uses my work. I could ask him for instance : « What really did happen in London with the bombing of the Underground ? Could you tell me your story ? They are very pleased to give me their story because they know it. This is how it is. First of all, I have the facts. Now, how to make it interesting, to make it « apetitlisch » (as they say in German) for the eyes, the brain and how to bribe the reader with humour-that’s when the question of talent comes in. Either you have it or you do not. I cannot explain why you have it or do not-that I do not know.
What is very important in my profession as a political cartoonist is stability. You cannot be moody. Every day you have to face your public. I have 103 million readers and they are used to trusting my judgment. I cannot say : « Oh today, I’m in a bad mood. I’m cutting my ear-I cannot draw. I’m a little Van Gogh. » No ! You have to be very steady -day after day, covering every major subject in the world. LurieThen, over the last two years, I took a temporary vacation in order to carry out the Uniting Painting project. It is a completely new form of art. The New York Times gave me a half a page and said : « From Uniting Painting we cannot explain the philosophy behind it as it totally new. » You can read about it on the Internet (
What is your motivation behind the Uniting Painting ?
It is a new idea, a new form of art. I enjoyed it very much. I made good money as a cartoonist, and what I’m going to do with the money is to invest it in something. I took a chance by investing something new in art and I feel very comfortable with it. Some people buy a Bentley. I already have a Bentley, so I’m OK ! I am surely not a super-millionaire, but I can afford it.
So from New York the artwork will travel. Will we get a chance of seeing it in Geneva ?
Well, I would like that very much. I have to find the right gallery, the right museum or the right institution that would like to be part of the general idea of the Uniting Painting.
If somebody would sponsor it in Geneva, I would like to donate my work and my time. If you can find somebody … that would be terrific !
What is your commitment to the United Nations and other international organizations ?
Absolutely nothing ! I am an individual who had an idea. I came to the UN and said : « Do you want it ? If you do, that’s fine. Or if you don’t-no hard feelings ».
I’m a great believer in the United Nations. I think it is a very important institution, and I think we need to have a government of governments. If we do not have the police next to us, we would start robbing banks. The Police of the World are the UN-the moral police.
The UN is facing a lot of crises today, and despite this you remain a strong believer in the values of the Charter and international values as such ?
I believe in the ideas of the UN, and they should be carried out correctly. I am not necessarily approving of everything that the bureaucracy is doing. I believe Kofi Annan is a very good man and that his intentions are good, but I also believe that there are many little people that can cause, unfortunately, the mismanagement we see. That does not mean that the idea of the UN is not good-the idea is very good. We just have to find the right people and the right way to build a clean and efficient organization.
You have completed the Uniting Painting project. What is your next project ?
To continue it ! I would have it exhibited in different countries ; use it to create a common denominator for countries in the form of art-like a passport. It is as if each country had an identical passport and that’s the Uniting Painting.
Have you already found other museums, such as London and elsewhere ?
Yes and no. All of them have a budget problem. My painting is physically very big, and it needs space and a lot of other things. We are just at the beginning now, and I am very pleased at the excitement that the idea has created. The next step, we will wait and see. I am at present working on an extremely exciting idea, but I am not going to talk about it right now as it’s in an embryonic state. If it works out, it will be important enough news to have other countries want to join.
Do you think that culture and artistic creativity should have more emphasis and be considered more important by people ?
I think that culture-graphic culture and culture that has concrete ideas-should be given the same importance as fruit. Fruit is good for the body, and this is fruit for the soul…