About Al Hirschfeld

Al Hirschfeld, 1955. Carl Van Vechten, photographer. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

We all know Al Hirschfeld, or at least think we do. For more than eight decades his drawings have seduced us with their apparent simplicity, tickled us with their wit, and revealed the essence of personalities in the way no biography can. His work has been ubiquitous, appearing in virtually every major publication (and many minor ones), as well as book and record covers, posters, and today, the Internet. Yet it may not be as easy to recognize how personal the work is and how different it is from that of his contemporaries or those who have chosen to emulate him.

Hirschfeld's work represents an uncommon synthesis of the emerging vogue of caricature as a form of experimental portraiture, the evolution of advertising and illustration, and the personal journey of the artist. His art has passed through the crucible of modern design of the 1920s, which was relentlessly urban and decidedly energetic, but is not the consequence of some passing fad or the limitations of his abilities. Rather it is a sustained consolidation of Hirschfeld's own eclectic experience.

The name Hirschfeld is synonymous with the American Theater and for good reason. His drawings of the players and productions have long graced the pages of New York newspapers, especially the New York Times with which he has had a seventy two-year relationship. They also have appeared on playbills, posters, and advertisements. For this work he has been celebrated around the world, earned two “Tony” awards for lifetime achievement in the theater, and his name made a verb of recognition. To be “Hirschfelded” is a sign that one has arrived. This exhibition takes Hirschfeld out of the theater for the most part, revealing a relatively unknown side of this American master. Surprisingly, the "Rosetta Stone" of Hirschfeld's work is not found in his theatrical drawings, but in his drawings for films, his paintings, and early prints. It is by examining these that one can see the evolution of his celebrated line, maturing from the traditional to the transcendent.

The simplicity of Hirschfeld's work is often confused—at least by the casual observer—with simpleness. Where others rely on complicated pictorial detail, his drawings have a self-evident air, as if every line could be in no other place. While eliminating, indeed purifying the detail of his pictures, he also enriches and intensifies the viewing experience by communicating volumes in a single stroke. Refuting Baudelaire's contention that “a portrait is a model complicated by an artist,” Hirschfeld simplifies a model for a portrait. He gleans the salient characteristics of his subject and transforms the ordinary aspects of an individual into an iconic summary of his or her life or a character's life. Character is the essence of what Hirschfeld captures in his drawings, providing, in the words of Wendy Wick Reaves, “an epigrammatic portrait.”

Considering that he drew from an early age, Hirschfeld's transformation into a truly modern artist was slow. Born in St. Louis in 1903, he was tutored by a local painter, who encouraged Hirschfeld's family to move to New York so that the young artist could pursue his evident talent. In 1914, the Hirschfelds arrived in New York, where Hirschfeld eventually attended the National Academy of Design. There he learned “things that can be taught: anatomy and perspective,” as he describes—the rules for which he would soon break.

Hirschfeld's practical education began in the publicity departments of film studios, where he made his first drawings for reproduction at Goldwyn Pictures in 1920. These drawings, much like his 1923 portrait of Betty Compson, are modest representational works influenced by, in the words of the artist, the “eye, ear, nose, and throat” drawings of Charles Dana Gibson. At eighteen Hirschfeld was made art director of Selznick Pictures, supplying a variety of artwork for the small studio with the big advertising budget, all while taking night classes at the Art Student's League. His personal style began to blossom after his introduction to Miquel Covarrubias. Hirschfeld took a studio with the Covarrubias in 1924, and was bit by the bug of caricature that Covarrubias had brought from his native Mexico. “There was something about Miquel's background that made him a natural graphic artist,” recalls Hirschfeld, “and a lot of that rolled onto me.”

Films provided Hirschfeld with a steady stream of subjects, and when he discovered his own graphic sense, their larger-than-life personalities were a natural fit for his pen. Hirschfeld worked for many of the film studios located in New York at the time and established a reputation for his film art even before his first theatrical drawing was published. In fact, Hirschfeld's first published caricature was for a Warner Brothers film in April 1925; his first theatrical drawing appeared in December 1926.

In October 1925 he made his way to Paris, as he put it, “to get rid of the commercial side of my art,” working hard on traditional portraits and landscapes over the next several years. Fleeing the cold of his first Parisian winter to North Africa in 1926, Hirschfeld was exposed to the bright light and dark shadows of the East, which would soon change his life. Subsequent experimental etchings—a medium Hirschfeld learned from Eugene Fitsch at the Art Students League and briefly dabbled with in 1926 and 1927—document his budding attraction to images created exclusively through line. Another surviving etching from this period, bearing stylish, summarized caricatures of Charlie Chaplin, John Barrymore, Eddie Cantor, and others, offers a rare early glimpse at the artist's relentless, lifelong quest to capture the essentials of character and movement through line.

In late 1926, by chance, Hirschfeld's first theatrical drawing was published in the New York Herald Tribune. Regular assignments soon followed from the Herald Tribune, the New York Times, and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Artistically, he was in good company, as New York City's fourteen daily newspapers were filled at the time with drawings by noted contemporary artists such as John Sloan, Boardman Robinson and Alexander Calder, who like him supported themselves with commissions for graphic illustrations.

Following the lead of many American artists and creators, in summer 1928 Hirschfeld spent six months in Russia. “I was very interested in the whole of the Soviet Union, and in communism at the time, which I thought was the salvation of the world then. Nothing happened in the time that I was there to disillusion me, actually.” As a New York Herald Tribune correspondent he interviewed the heads of the Russian theaters and film industries, then at their zenith. He planned to publish a lavishly illustrated book when he returned, but his publisher lost the sole manuscript, including the book's illustrations. The only works to survive were a handful of drawings he had sent to the newspaper to accompany short articles, including a dynamic portrait of Boris Youjanin, director of the Blue Blouse theater troupe, surrounded by actors from the group.

In 1931, Hirschfeld continued his world travels, sailing for Tahiti to live and paint. Soon, however, he ventured to Bali at the invitation of Miguel Covarrubias, who had been living on the island. Upon arriving, Hirschfeld knew his life would never be the same. “The Balinese sun seemed to bleach out all color, leaving everything in pure line. The people became line drawings walking around,” he wrote of the experience. “It was in Bali that my attraction to drawing blossomed into an enduring love affair with line.”

Regarding the impact of foreign travel and art on his work Hirschfeld notes, “I think it is no accident that rich, lush painting flourishes in the fog of Europe, while graphic art—from Egypt across Persia to India and all the way to the Pacific Islands—is influenced by the sun . . . I am much more influenced by the drawings of Harunobu, Utamaro, and Hokusai than I am by the painters of the West.” In this way, Hirschfeld's style may be called distinctly American, a melting pot of international influences: the contemporary abstract spirit and Mexican graphic heritage of Covarrubias, the thin French line Hirschfeld discovered in Paris and found too in the work of American illustrator John Held Jr. (with whom he worked alongside at MGM's publicity department in the late 1920s), the bolder drawing style displayed in the German journal Simplicissimus, as well as a love for the line and perspective of Japanese woodcuts he discovered as a boy in a book of Hokusai prints. Intuitively, he assimilated all of these influences, personalized them, and transmuted the negative characteristics of the genre known as caricature into a joyful, life-affirming line. Not relying on the outline or profile of his subjects, like many of his early contemporaries, he translates the action of the whole body into drawings by employing a varied palette of graphic symbols (including his daughter's name, Nina, which he began hiding within his work in 1945).

Hirschfeld has never limited himself to only personalities. In a series of lithographs from the 1930s, he tackled broader satiric subjects, often with political overtones. George Grosz recognized Hirschfeld's talent and wrote an appreciation for a 1938 exhibition catalogue, “[Hirschfeld's] satire remains graphic where a lesser talent would have produced a mere literary footnote. The people in these prints, and their milieu, are fitted into a satiric pattern, which owes nothing to political bias or a transiently fashionable irritation with well-entrenched smugness. He has solved his problems well, and, by means at once simple and astonishingly adroit, has known how to avoid both sentimentality and cleverness.”

Hirschfeld realized “that there is a vast difference between drawings of political significance and drawings of social significance. The political drawing, by its very nature, becomes an instrument of propaganda . . . The socially significant drawing reflects the personal truth of the artist.” He supplied political work and covers to New Masses, the Left's most articulate magazine, and to Americana, a satiric magazine he edited with Alexander King. During the 1940s, American Mercury covers regularly featured Hirschfeld paintings of political figures, such as the portraits of Admiral Chester Nimitz and commentator Walter Lippmann.

Many of Hirschfeld's closest friends are writers, and he has spent a lifetime among journalists. His approach to art is very similar. For an “assignment,” whether for a newspaper illustration or some other project, he records preliminary ideas and designs in his sketchbook. He then returns to his studio to translate those initial impressions into works that capture the character of his subject without editorializing. Hirschfeld doesn't judge, he doesn't comment, he simply presents the world as seen through his eyes. He works with no formulas—save his own graphic brilliance—no procedures or protocols, and is still captivated by how a drawing might turn out. “The problem of placing the right line in the right place has absorbed all of my interests across these many years,” says Hirschfeld. “I am still enchanted when an unaccountable line describes and communicates the inexplicable.”

David Leopold

David Leopold is an independent curator and Al Hirschfeld's archivist.

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