Istvan Banyai, Illustrator Who Mined the Surreal, Dies at 73

By 2013, the celebrated Hungarian-born illustrator Istvan Banyai had achieved a place of prominence and influence in his profession. Blending a gimlet-eyed satirical sense with fantastical whimsy, Mr. Banyai had produced frame-worthy covers for The New Yorker, along with eye-catching work for New York magazine, The Atlantic and other publications.

His ambitiously conceptual children’s book, “Zoom,” had earned rave reviews. And that year, Mr. Banyai’s work was the subject of a solo retrospective at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass.

But if he was savoring his rise, Mr. Banyai, ever arid and ironic, rarely let it show. “Really,” he said in a video interview promoting the exhibition, “I feel like I’m an outsider. I’m really an oddball guy who managed to, like a jackal, eat whatever the pigs leave behind.”

Mr. Banyai’s 2002 New Yorker cover illustration of two young lovers making out on a New York City sidewalk became a favorite on blogs and Pinterest.Credit…Istvan Banyai/The New Yorker

Mr. Banyai died on Dec. 15 in a hospital in West Harrison, N.Y. He was 73. His wife, Kati Banyai, said his death, which was not widely reported at the time, was caused by lung cancer.

The influential editors who long sought out Mr. Banyai’s services did not share his self-deprecating assessment.

“Istvan’s pictures were masterful and precise but also trippy and sexy, a great hybrid,” the author Kurt Andersen, a former editor in chief of New York magazine, wrote in an email. “They looked more like animation cels — distinctly European animation, filtered through the late 1960s — than sketchy cartoons.”

In 1995, Mr. Andersen hired Mr. Banyai to produce a weekly illustration riffing on the news of the week for New York’s topical front-of-the-book section, Gotham. The work, while playful, was also tart.

A typically satirical illustration, from the height of the O.J. Simpson murder trial, showed the fallen former football star coming to terms with his epic fall by scanning magazine cover images that show him devolving from gridiron hero to inmate.

“Istvan Banyai is mad,” Steven Heller, a longtime art director for The New York Times who commissioned work from Mr. Banyai for the Book Review, wrote in an essay tied to the museum retrospective: “Not angry nor despondent, but mad in the transcendent sense. He is perpetually in a state of creative lunacy that only a gifted artist can achieve — if lucky.”

Mr. Banyai in 2015. “I’m really an oddball guy,” he said, “who managed to, like a jackal, eat whatever the pigs leave behind.”Credit…via Kati Banyai

For many years Mr. Banyai drew a monthly series of tastefully erotic sketches for Playboy magazine’s advice column, Playboy Advisor. He also producing more than a dozen covers for The New Yorker from 1998 to 2015. One typically sardonic example, from December 2001, showed an alarmed Santa Claus being forced through airport security in the panicky days following the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

But Mr. Banyai’s work could also turn lyrical. His New Yorker cover from May 2002 — later a favorite on blogs and Pinterest — showed two young lovers pausing for a racy display of public affection on a busy New York sidewalk.

Although he also produced advertisements for companies like Absolut Vodka, the narrative possibilities in the editorial field were a natural for the way his mind worked, Kati Banyai said in a phone interview: “He was capable of thinking an article visually. I’ve never seen anybody like this.”

Even so, Mr. Banyai never let his imagination be constrained by the exigencies of deadline journalism, as evidenced by his four children’s books, which often employed visual twists that toyed with readers’ perceptions.

“Zoom” (1995) recalled a movie camera forever zooming out to expose “a world within a world,” Patricia McCormick wrote in her review in The Times, which declared the book “stunning.” “An image that appears to be an overhead view of a farmyard turns out to be a child playing with a toy farm set. The toy farm turns out to be a catalog cover, and the boy holding the catalog turns out to be on a cruise ship.”

The spirit of boundless escapism on display in such works was not mere whimsy, Ms. Banyai said, but was partly a reaction to the oppression Mr. Banyai experienced growing up in Soviet-controlled Hungary.

Mr. Banyai’s children’s book “Zoom” starts with a single image and then zooms out to reveal other worlds, shifting perspectives in jarring and playful ways.

Istvan Banyai was born on Feb. 27, 1949, in the suburbs of Budapest, to Istvan Banyai, an engineer who worked for the national railway service, and Gabriella (Adami) Banyai, a schoolteacher. Three days after he was born, his mother died at age 24 of eclampsia, a rare disorder that can occur in the latter stages of pregnancy.

As a youth, Mr. Banyai showed promise as both a classical pianist and an artist. But, growing up under a Communist regime that stifled free expression, he knew his creative options were limited.

“Wegrew up like paranoid people,” said Ms. Banyai, who is also from Hungary. “You had to salute the Russian flag. You had to sing the Russian anthem. There was no sophistication. Everything cultural was bourgeois, and that was not allowed.”

By the time he enrolled in the College of Applied Arts in Budapest, now the Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design, Mr. Banyai had his sights on what he saw as a more practical profession: architecture. Lost in his imagination, with little interest in quotidian matters, he did not stick with it for long.

“Once he designed a house without a staircase, and it was two floors high,” Ms. Banyai said. “It was then he realized, ‘Maybe my heart is not in it.’”

After graduating in 1973, he found work as a graphic designer, creating movie posters, record covers and advertisements. He drew inspiration from artifacts of capitalist entertainment found on the black market, like rock records. The animated Beatles film “Yellow Submarine” inspired him to create his own surrealistic cartoon, “Gobble Gobble,” about a ravenous man who grows absurdly enormous as he devours first restaurant meals, then cars, buildings and eventually the stars in the heavens.

The French director René Laloux saw a screening of “Gobble Gobble” and invited Mr. Banyai to France to work on his animated science fiction film, “The Masters of Time,” which would. be released in 1982. Mr. Banyai obtained permission from the Hungarian government to travel to France, and for his wife and their son, Simon, to visit him, after which the family “declined to return,” as he later put it.

“Marilyn Monroe” (2012).Credit…Istvan Banyai

In addition to his wife, Mr. Banyai is survived by his son and two grandsons.

He continued his graphic design career in Paris but, unable to gain French citizenship, he moved to Los Angeles in 1981. There he created the slot-machine animated opening sequence for the game show “Love Connection” and the cartoonish 1980s lettering for the poster for the film “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”

As much as he loved the sun-drenched airiness of California, he knew that the real opportunities were in New York, the capital of publishing and advertising. So, in 1993, he and his family moved to Manhattan and settled in the West Village.

His big break came two years later with the weekly assignment for New York magazine. It was an opportune era.

“The 1980s and ’90s, right before the internet really made American magazines as we knew them an endangered species, and magazine illustration even more so, were also the final golden age for both,” Mr. Andersen said. “Istvan was one of the handful of great illustrators of that generation.”

Mr. Banyai would never have described his career in such grandiose terms. Thanks to his weekly appearance in the magazine, he said in the 2013 video interview, “I ended up next to everybody’s toilet. So in a way, that really made me visible.”

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