BLOWN COVERS Reveals Controversial and Rejected New Yorker Covers

by Mark Bousquet

A recent Forbes article discusses some of The New Yorker‘s most controversial covers and reveals images that never made it to print. The subject of the piece is the recent release of Françoise Mouly’s book, Blown Covers: New Yorker Covers You Were Never Meant to See. Though typically drawing attention for their artistic and satirical merit, select New Yorker covers have also proven controversial, such as Barry Blitt’s July 2008 cover that depicted President Barack Obama and the First Lady exchanging a “terrorist fist-bump” in the Oval Office. Ms. Mouly’s book helps to illuminate the tension that exists between artistic expression and commercial interests.

As the art editor for The New Yorker, Ms. Mouly sits between the artists she encourages and the editors she must appease. Liza Donnelly, a cartoonist for the magazine, articulates the power of being selected for the cover on the artist: “For many if not most cartoonists, the next hurdle is to have a cover. The New Yorker covers are magical and carry a certain mystery, and if you are a New Yorker cartoonist, having a drawing on the cover is a rather large feather in your cap.”

Blown Covers offers a firsthand account of how some of The New Yorker‘s most iconic covers were conceived, developed, and ultimately chosen for print. Ms. Mouly also includes unseen images from proposed covers that, for a variety of reasons, never made it onto the cover of the magazine. According to Ms. Donnelly, Blown Covers “gives us a peek into the process: creation, selection, and the decisions as to how a cover gets to be a cover.” Covers are not always chosen for either their artistic merit or ability to sell magazines. “While there is a need to sell magazines,” Ms. Donnelly explains, “there are other dynamics going on in the creation and selection of those images.”

For the cover of her own book, Ms. Mouly uses a rejected Barry Blitt illustration for The New Yorker. Blitt’s image draws on the iconic Marilyn Monroe image from Billy Wilder’s 1955 film, The Seven Year Itch, to depict the Pope standing on a sidewalk grate, his skirts billowing upwards around his midriff. Ms. Mouly explained the magazine’s decision to The New Yorker‘s Culture Desk:

When this image by Barry Blitt came in, David Remnick, who makes all the final decisions, was off on a trip, but he asked me to show it around. My colleagues all laughed yet they concluded it didn’t “work” because neither the Pope nor the scandals plaguing the Catholic Church had anything to do with Marilyn Monroe. “Oy vey!” said the artist, Barry Blitt, and we moved on.

Ms. Donnelly believes Ms. Mouly chose this Blitt image for Blown Covers because:

This drawing represents for her a sort of unique visual communication. We “get it” but on a visceral level. I think that this is the reason why cartoons in general connect with people in ways that words or other art do not. They speak to us on an intuitive level because we all looked at cartoons when we were little. The power of this type of imagery hits us at a gut level. Often we don’t even know what we are receiving—we can try to analyze it, and sometimes can understand why we are reacting. But oftentimes, we just react.

Whether discussing Art Spiegelman’s provocative 1993 “Hasidic Kiss” Valentine’s Day cover, or Anita Kunz’s rejected Monica Lewinsky cover from 1998, Ms. Mouly’s decision to both open up The New Yorker‘s archives in order to make public previously unseen artwork, and open up about the creative process she shares with artists and decision-making process with editorial grants us new insight into the sometimes uneasy relationship between art and commerce.

The New Yorker‘s Culture Desk offers twelve controversial and rejected cover images with commentary by Ms. Mouly here, and Ms. Mouly and Nadja Spiegelman run a website devoted to Blown Covers here.

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Mark Bousquet is the Assistant Director of Core Writing at the University of Nevada, Reno, and reviews movies and television programs at Atomic Anxiety.