I promised you something lighthearted today, so how about the wonderful drawings of Al Hirschfeld?
OK, so maybe you’re familiar with Hirschfeld. Maybe you’re seen the documentary on his life and work, The Line King on PBS. Maybe you’ve seen his work in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Maybe you’ve seen the USPS postage stamps featuring his drawings of famous comedians, or, most likely, maybe you’ve just seen his wonderful caricatures of movie, TV and broadway stars, or rock, classical and jazz musicians in the pages of the New York Times and other publications. (Image at left, above, is Myrna Loy and William Powell, in their roles as Nora and Nick Charles, along with their dog, Asta, of course, from The Thin Man, one of my favorite movies from the 1930’s).
Maybe you’ve heard about Hirschfeld’s penchant for hiding “NINA”, his daughter’s name, in the lines of his drawings, often several times with a “hint” number penned next to his signature indicating how many times it was worked into that drawing. Maybe you’ve heard the (possibly true) rumor that the US Army would have their bomber pilots look for the hidden”NINA”s as part of their training to pick out hidden enemy targets during WW II.
OK, so maybe Hirschfeld is old hat to you, been there seen that, but my suggestion is to look again. Even though you’ve heard it before, just look at his lines.
Swooping, swirling and careening across the page like a crazed NY cabbie trying to make time through cross-town traffic, Hirschfeld’s lines look like they were drawn just to be as loopy and wild and zingy as possible, with no thought of actually doing anything. Yet, they define their targets with such succinct clarity that they could not possibly exist for any other purpose than to make those amazing faces.
And what faces they are; Hirschfeld’s caricatures stretch the limits of how exaggerated a likeness can be, but do so with an economy of line that would make a master of Chinese ink painting sit up and take notice.
Yes, notice his lines and then notice the space where the lines aren’t, the negative space defined by the lines and filled with the most eloquent and meaningful emptiness. So few lines, so much character, both in the character of the person, and the character of the line.
There is an “official” site at alhirschfield.com, managed by the gallery that represents his work in New York. The images quality is better, though on the New York Times archive. I list some other resources below. There are also a number of excellent and inexpensive collections of his work. Hirschfeld’s Hollywood: The Film Art of Al Hirschfeld, Hirschfeld’s New York and Hirschfeld , as well as Hirschfeld On Line and an interview in The Comics Journal Special Edition: Winter 2004: Four Generations of Cartoonists (along with Jules Feiffer, Art Spiegelman and Chris Ware).
OK, so you think you know Hirschfeld, but have you seen his non-caricature straightforward drawings, such as his Gibson-like portrait (image at left, bottom) of 1920’s Vaudville and film star Betty Compson? No? How about his etchings of his travels in North Africa, his watercolors of Bali, or his illustrations in watercolor and gouache? No? Didn’t think so. Neither had I until just recently.
There’s only a smattering of them around, but you can see some of them in an online exhibit on the Library of Congress site. This 2002 exhibit is based on a gift of original drawings given to the Library on its bicentennial. It shows something of Hirschfeld’s other sides as an artist, as well as some of the development of his elegant, and eloquent, lines.