Hirschfeld Age revealed at New-York Museum
By ALAN SMASON, Exclusive to the CCJN
As a celebrated artist and caricaturist, Al Hirschfeld is still without peer. His ability to capture the essence of a performer or personality with but the most diminutive of dots, the boldest of dashes or the cleverest of ciphers still captivates art lovers the world over.
But “The Line King” was much more than that. He attended more Broadway and off-Broadway openings than anyone else. Anyone. He had a profound influence on the intelligentsia of the Thirties and Forties, working with the likes of S. J. Perlman, Moss Hart, William Saroyan and Brooks Atkinson. Hirschfeld personally introduced George Gershwin to the man who would become his greatest interpreter and friend, Oscar Levant. His work with the nascent movie industry began as a teenager, when the Selznicks, Hal Roach and Harry Warner were newcomers to the industry and a fellow illustrator named Disney had yet to make his presence known.
But it is through his documentation of the theatre scene in New York, his promotion of Hollywood film and iconic TV stars, his sharply pointed political commentaries and his culmination as America’s foremost caricaturist that Hirschfeld made his reputation and by which the world still worships his art. (Hirschfeld described himself as a “characterist.”)
It is little wonder then that the New-York Historical Society Museum, the oldest museum in the Empire State, has endorsed Hirschfeld’s important contributions to art and literature by declaring the span of the 99-year-old artist as “The Hirschfeld Century.” An exhibit in his honor subtitled “The Art of Al Hirschfeld” documents his remarkable achievements and is on display at the museum now through October 12 and through the courtesy of the Al Hirschfeld Foundation, headed by his widow and society board member Louise Kerz Hirschfeld.
For those unable to attend in person, “The Hirschfeld Century: Portrait of an Artist and His Age,” a magnificent 324-page hardcover volume full of but a mere handful of the thousands of the artist’s lifetime renderings, is edited by renowned archivist David Leopold and available through the New-York Historical Society Museum and major booksellers.
New Orleanians will recall Leopold as the archivist who worked with The Historic New Orleans Collection’s curator Mark Cave in creating the exhibit “Drawn to Life: Al Hirschfeld and the Theater of Tennessee Williams” for the playwright’s centennial year in 2011.
Although most people are familiar with Hirschfeld’s pen and ink renderings and lithographs, the current exhibit shows his capacity to work in mixed media. His Hollywood poster art for Goldwyn, Pathé and MGM Studios include gouache, watercolor and ink designs. His innovative use of a wallpaper sample to create the quilt in an ink, watercolor and photograph collage of comedy greats Laurel and Hardy for MGM is an example of his early experimentation and his openness of expression.
But even for those who consider themselves true afficionados of the artist’s work, there is substantial documentation of what became the most important influence on Hirschfeld’s career – the time he spent on the island paradise of Bali in 1932.
“The Balinese sun seemed to bleach out all color, leaving everything in pure line,” Hirschfeld wrote. “The people became line drawings walking around.”
Hirschfeld further acknowledged that this love affair with the ever-present sun in Bali led him to a deeper appreciation of Japanese woodcuts and masters of line art. “I am much more influenced by the drawings of Harunobu, Utamaro, and Hokusai than I am by the painters of the West,” he wrote. His watercolors of natives and landscapes from that time are reminiscent of Paul Gauguin’s pieces from Tahiti many decades earlier.
Hirschfeld’s attachment to simple shadow puppets may have been another indication that he was refining the scope of his art. Several shadow puppets adorned the interior of his New York studio for more than a half century. Leopold takes care to note in the exhibit and in the notes of the book, “[a]fter Bali, he never painted or drew a landscape again.”
Whether the world knew it or not, a transformed Hirschfeld was ready to make changes in his art and his personal life. The South Pacific stay in Bali ultimately cost him his first marriage as the couple separated upon their return to New York later that same year.
Hirschfeld, returned to work on Manhattan Oases, a book that documented New York speakeasies in the waning days of Prohibition. He was eagerly welcomed back to provide illustrations for the movie publicity departments, especially for films distributed by MGM Studios.
The bankruptcy of The Selznick Company in 1924 had created mistrust for Hirschfeld. He had personally hired a staff of illustrators, expecting to be reimbursed by the company and when it failed, he was on the hook for everyone’s back pay. It took him months to work off the debt and he vowed never again to have anyone work for him.
Hirschfeld’s work ethic was legendary, but he detested binding legal contracts. He began his work for the New York Times with a simple handshake and it wasn’t until 62 years later that he complied their request for a signed contract to continue his services.
His penchant for satire got him banned from The New Yorker magazine when he chanced to make fun of the publisher. Eventually, he was reinstated more than five decades later, but it was his playful nature and his constant pushing the envelope of authority and his art that helped shape the public’s opinion of him.
Although he illustrated many literary volumes, it may surprise some to learn that Hirschfeld was a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine for several years, covering the Hollywood beat with exclusive interviews of luminaries like Charlie Chaplin. But he gave up regular reporting claiming that with writing, there were 150 ways to write a line, but with art, only one.
Hirschfeld may have concentrated on art, but he did continue his writing with successful best sellers like Westward Ha!, co-written with humorist S. J. Perelman, and Show Business Is No Business, an insider’s primer to theatre.
The bulk of his contributions to Hollywood continued even as the studio system began to unravel. During the heyday of MGM Studios’ demands on the artist, he turned out promotional posters at a staggering pace. The Astor Theater in New York was the repository for many of his images, some stretching as high as three stories tall. But as MGM’s hold over artists began to loosen, so, too, did the posters at the Astor diminish. Hirschfeld’s last connection to a major Hollywood studio was with United Artists, a firm which kept him on its payroll through the 1970s.
Hirschfeld still holds the record for the number of TV Guide magazine covers he penned. His work with Collier’s magazine also yielded still legendary designs on the history of television and film. He frequently was invited on the sets of Hollywood productions and was often asked to sketch early rehearsals of Broadway shows in the making.
There is no doubt, though, that theatre became his raison d’être. According to Leopold, on the rare instances where Hirschfeld ran late, curtains were held for him. It is no wonder that the Martin Beck Theater was renamed for the artist on the date that would have been Hirschfeld’s 100th birthday in 2003.
Also, for the uninitiated, there is the story of the artist’s “NINAs” that also established Hirschfeld as a bit of a character and rapscallion. Finding the hidden name of his only daughter tucked inside the crease of a gown or in a man’s boutonniere was a favorite parlor game for weekly readers of the New York Times. Hirschfeld was surprised to learn that his sneaky little practice begun in 1948 had been the worst kept secret in Manhattan since Boss Tweed was charged with corruption. When he tried to desist from the practice, readers revolted and eventually he began affixing a number to his signature, so as to avoid dealing with the volumes of mail demanding he secret his daughter’s name in his future designs.
One of the most unusual of Hirschfeld’s original pen and ink drawings on display is one he called Nina’s Revenge. In the image of his 18-year-old daughter from 1966 the artist hid both his first name and that of his wife Dolly, each twice, a fact confirmed by the designation of “2+2” next to his name.
The Hirschfeld Century continues at the New-York Historical Museum, 170 Central Park West in New York City, now through October 12.