“Confidence in itself has no real validity — mayhem and horror have been created by people with confidence.”
Abner Dean (1910 – 1982), born Abner Epstein, was an American cartoonist who was the nephew of sculptor Jacob Epstein. In allegorical or surrealist situations, Dean often depicted extremes of human behavior amid grim, decaying urban settings or barren landscapes. His artwork prompted Clifton Fadiman to comment, "His pictures are trick mirrors in which we catch sight of those absurd fragments of ourselves that we never see in the smooth glass of habit."
Graduating from Dartmouth in 1931, Dean studied at the National Academy of Design. He worked as a commercial illustrator, contributing to The New Yorker, Esquire (magazine) and other publications. His work for Life included illustrations of George Orwell's 1984 for a Life article on Orwell.
His first book, It's a Long Way to Heaven (Farrar and Rinehart, 1945) had an introduction by Philip Wylie. Chris Lanier, in "Abner Dean Made This: An Appreciation," analyzed the approach Dean took in the book:
The characters in these drawings are modestly sexless, but they reveal all sorts of things about themselves through their activities. Their guiding star is folly, and when they act in groups, it’s always under the direction of a collective id... Some of the drawings are under the sway of a symbolism that suggests a simplified modern version of the instructive images Bosch or Bruegel composed — there are men turning into birds, or mushrooms turning into men, and people with portentous objects affixed to their pates — eggs, books, irons. Of course, when the rest of you is naked, even a hat becomes a portentous object: a naked man wearing a policeman’s hat is not simply a man wearing a hat. But even in the most hermetic and perplexing cartoons, you feel there might be some unacknowledged part of yourself acting out its pet obsession in some corner of the diorama.
At first these pictures look like gag cartoons (there’s a funny drawing, and then a caption that might provide a laugh) but on closer examination they reveal themselves to be a different animal. In a gag strip, the caption usually puts the image to a full stop — the joke has been released from the image, and so the image has been “used up” — disposable as the burnt rind of a firecracker. With some of Dean’s images, the caption can indeed provide a laugh, but the image, instead of coming to a full stop, begins to spool out in disquieting directions... But even the drawings that are closer to gags, like “Double Thinking,” showing a man who has a doll doppelganger of himself strapped to his back (a woman is embracing the doppelganger, while the man himself is observing her and taking notes), are drawn with such an atmosphere of blasted loneliness that what you take away from them, more than the laugh or the cleverness, is a sense of chilly disconnect. In Heaven, Dean situates his scenes in landscapes, even when he doesn’t strictly need a wider environment to sell the situation — and most of the landscapes are barren, showing empty hills or dead cracked trees, piles of jagged rocks, horizons stretching out the promise of more nothingness.
Seven more Dean collections were published over the next 16 years. As indicated by the title of his Naked People (1963), his more personal work portrayed most often unclothed people in a variety of absurdist situations, reflecting the themes of disillusionment, self-delusion, yearning and the meaninglessness of modern life. Despite this, he usually drew in a very slick, professional and cleanly drawn, even cute style. Dean's vision expressed a darkness atypical of cartoon work of his time. He has begun to accumulate a posthumous cult following of admirers.
What Am I Doing Here?
It's a Long Way to Heaven, 1945What Am I Doing Here? 1947And On the Eighth Day, 1949Come As You Are: A Book about People at Parties, 1952Cave Drawings of the Future, 1954Wake Me When It's Over, 1955Not Far From the Jungle, 1956Abner Dean's Naked People: A Selection of Drawings from Four of His Books, 1963