Through Hirschfeld’s Eyes

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In the early 1990s the United States Postal Service commissioned several series of commemorative stamps from Hirschfeld, one of famous comedians, another with stars of the silent screen. Art museums around the world have his drawings in their permanent collections; animators at the Walt Disney Studio acknowledge his influence on their creation of the genie character in Aladdin ; there is a CD-ROM about his life and career; a critically acclaimed documentary film about him, The Line King , opened in 1996; a few weeks later New York City designated him a “living landmark.” This year exhibits of his work are being mounted at both the Library of Congress and the National Portrait Gallery.

Al Hirschfeld was born in St. Louis on June 21, 1903, the son of a third-generation German-American and an independent “pioneer lady,” as he puts it, born in the Ukraine. They lived in a house that had no electricity, gas, or running water.

He began showing artistic promise at an early age, drawing and even sculpting when he was seven or eight. A local painter “convinced my mother that St. Louis was not a good town in which to raise me, so my mother packed up the whole family—three boys and my father—and brought us to New York.” They settled on the top floor of a wooden house in the still-rural area of Manhattan around 183d Street, and Hirschfeld went to the Vocational School for Boys during the day, learning lithography, printing, and etching, and both the National Academy of Art and Design and the Art Students League at night. He also began going to the theater in Manhattan, seeing among other performers the legendary Sarah Bernhardt on one of her many “farewell” tours.

By the time he was eighteen, he was the art director of Selznick Studios, in Fort Lee, New Jersey. It was owned by Louis J. Selznick, the father of David O. Selznick, who would become the producer of Gone With the Wind . Encouraged by the elder Selznick to open his own advertising art business to handle the studio’s needs, Hirschfeld lost his shirt when several movies flopped and the studio went bankrupt. “I decided at that time that I’d never work for anybody anymore. I’d be on my own.”

An uncle, impressed with Hirschfeld’s subsequent success at paying off his debts with his art, offered to send him to Europe. He bought a sixtyfive-dollar ticket on a ship headed for France in 1924 and spent the better part of the next three years there, painting oils and periodically returning to New York to earn enough money to continue his artistic endeavors abroad. He dates the dawn of his career as a theatrical caricaturist to a stateside visit in 1926, when a chance encounter with Richard Maney, a soon-to-be-famous publicist, changed his life.

Sitting in his studio on the day of our interview with a twenty-by-thirty-inch piece of tripleply cold-pressed illustration board before him, Hirschfeld contemplated a rough pencil sketch he had made of David Brinkley. The drawing was a “rush assignment,” Hirschfeld said, and the problem, as always, was daunting. The smooth, undulating, yet incisive line that characterizes his drawing actually emerges from his pen in small, meticulous strokes, centimeter by painstaking centimeter.

That line—sinewy, strong, decisive yet delicate—draws a direct link between the world of Weber and Fields and the world of Whoopi Goldberg, between Harry Lauder and Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk . He connects, as no other artist ever will again, today’s theater with its modern origins.

You’ve written that everybody with five senses possesses the ability to see people as you do. Anyone can recognize friends at two hundred feet in a snowstorm or pick them out of a crowd, even if their features are obscured by a muffler or new hat. Your job, you say, is to use that universal skill to reduce a person into legible symbols. That sounds like magic to me.

Oh, yes. It’s alchemy. It is not a science. The procedure I follow, which is of my own making, is to create a problem and solve it. Now I’m doing this thing of Brinkley. It’s not a question of anatomy. It’s a question of capturing some kind of the fey quality that this fellow has. He’s a very learned fellow; he has a unique background. I don’t know how you capture that. I’ve been at this thing for a little while now and getting nowhere with it. But across the years you get a kind of assurance that since you’ve done it before, it’s probably going to work again—though you always have the feeling that maybe it won’t. It’s mysterious.

I suppose anatomy plays some part in it, but exaggeration of a feature, distorting reality, is not my idea of caricature. My problem is doing this in the simplest line that I can think of; I suppose what makes it palatable to an audience is that it eventually will look like the guy, but that’s not my primary purpose. My primary purpose is to do a drawing that will survive the personality or the play. I realize when I look at my old drawings that I don’t remember many of the plays at all. I don’t remember who wrote them, I don’t remember what the persons looked like. But every now and then one of the drawings manages to hold up pretty well, across the years.