This Exhibition Has Ended

August 22, 2015
December 20, 2015
In the Moak, Class of 1953, and Schaenen Galleries

Known for his insightful novels, Kurt Vonnegut (1922–2007) also created many drawings, often applying the same acerbic humor he used so effectively in his writing. The Johnson Museum is proud to present the first museum exhibition of these drawings, from the collection of his daughter Nanette, in conjunction with the campus and community reading of Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), Cornell’s 2015 New Student Reading Project selection.

While a chemistry major at Cornell, Vonnegut wrote for the Cornell Daily Sun and once said that “working on the Daily Sun . . . [was] how I got my liberal arts education.” In 1943 he enlisted in the army, cutting short his undergraduate career as part of the Class of 1944. He was captured during the Battle of the Bulge and sent to the Dresden prison known as Schlachthof Fünf (Slaughterhouse Five), a name adopted by the POWs. The devastating firebombing of Dresden in February 1945 was the inspiration for his famous novel.

Vonnegut’s graphic art career began with illustrations he created for Slaughterhouse-Five and later Breakfast of Champions. These drawings evoke the work of illustrators Al Hirschfield and Edward Gorey but are also inspired by art-historical masters such as Marcel Duchamp, Georges Braque, and Paul Klee. Vonnegut used colored felt-tip pens because, as he explained, “Oil is such a commitment,” and watercolors are “too bland, too very easy.” 

This exhibition includes more than thirty drawings from the 1980s that Vonnegut himself deemed “as rare as exotic postage stamps,” offering another way of getting to know this beloved, quixotic author.

Nancy E. Green
The Gale and Ira Drukier Curator of European and American Art, Prints & Drawings, 1800–1945


Kurt Vonnegut’s life as a visual artist is an open secret. Seminal obituaries recount his literary virtuosity, yet they say nothing of his enduring passion for drawing, painting, and sculpture. “I’ve been drawing all my life,” said Vonnegut. “It’s just an agreeable thing to do . . . I always say to people, practice an art, no matter how well or badly, because . . . it makes your soul grow.”

Throughout his literary career Vonnegut doodled on old drafts, then signed and dated them. Drawing for the “Master Grand Doodler,” as daughter Nanette called him, was a relief from the tyranny of language. Vonnegut relaxed with line and color; he let his unconscious guide the artistic process. “I just sit and wait to see what’s inside me,” he said, “and then it comes out.” Scholar Peter Reed described such a moment: “Kurt put some acetate on an easel, got a marker, and got right at it. He drew a horizontal line, then a vertical one. . . . He composed as he did it.”

Vonnegut once told his brother, Bernard, that a work of art “is one half of a conversation between two human beings.” Imagine the discussion we might have if he were able to join us at this exhibition. Surely Vonnegut would tell us some jokes. Then he might talk about Indianapolis and Dresden, fame and fortune, war and kindness. And, if we recognized someone among the faces in his drawings he might remind us that, “All persons, living and dead, are purely coincidental.”

Michele Wick ’82
Research Associate/Lecturer, Psychology, Smith College