Book Review: The Hirschfeld Century

The front cover, featuring a classic Hirschfeld self-portrait.

The front cover, featuring a classic Hirschfeld self-portrait.

When I was young, I remember Dad handing things round for us to look at. If it was a magazine, that meant Charles Addams had a cartoon in The New Yorker. If it was a newspaper, then Al Hirschfeld had a drawing in The New York Times. Among caricaturists, Hirschfeld lacks the acerbic bite of Honore Daumier or Thomas Nast; the limelight is his milieu. Faces are drawn into the broad smiles of performers at work, bodies stretch and leap until they speak volumes. Newspapers before the advent of photographic reproduction were filled with graphic art; Hirschfeld can be said to be the last dizzying burst of that inventive visual subculture. No one has risen to assume his mantle, and if I were you I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting.

As a child, there was the game: finding where Hirschfeld had hidden his daughter’s name, NINA, in the drawing. Hair and the folds of fabric were obvious places, and Hirschfeld’s elegant, supple line work made the job easy. It was only later, when I grew to study art and not just bathe in its wonder, did I come to recognize Hirschfeld’s unique talent, and how perfectly he fit the requirements of his job.

The Hirschfeld Century is the latest book about Hirschfeld’s long and rich career. Author and editor David Leopold has curated several exhibitions of Hirschfeld’s work, and has carefully selected a rich selection of posters, newspaper drawings, and even a few paintings that summarize Hirschfeld’s career. The accompanying exhibition is just closing its run at the New York Historical Society (last day: Oct. 12) , Considering that Hirschfeld began his career in the 1920s and worked until his death in 2003 he can be said to have worked in several different world: silent and sound film, theater, television. Had he lived longer I suppose he would have been caricaturing YouTube stars and other online personalities, and perhaps befriending some of them.

Hirschfeld was an easygoing man, quick to laugh, and well-liked by a wide variety of people, from Charlie Chaplin to Frank Sinatra, to Zero Mostel (one of several of Hirschfeld’s friends to be blacklisted as a result of the House Committee on Un-American Activities hearings) to Elia Kazan (who named names before HUAC). His purpose was to illustrate, not comment, and though he did slip in the occasional opinion, his work is free from partisanship. If you lean more toward the Daumier school you might find this a drawback, but I certainly don’t. Editorial cartoonists have their followers, but Hirschfeld was concerned with capturing the essence of a play or film and the personalities of the performers in it. His dancers are light and free from gravity; his dramatic performers carry the weight of their speeches and emotions. Brilliant is not hyperbole when describing Hirschfeld’s ability with line.

The book is good, but not in-depth. Because this is not a biography but a history of his artistic career and exhibition catalog*, tantalizing moments go unexplored: what were Hirschfeld and S. J. Perelman doing at a Benny Goodman rehearsal in New York (p. 94-95), where, aside from hearing some great swing, the two men first met? My quibbles are fortunately just that, little points that ought to have been caught by the editors. Was it necessary to point out that Selznick Productions had “the largest billboard in Times Square” in two successive paragraphs (p. 3,5)? And Walt Disney did not create “a color cartoon of Mickey Mouse” (p. 75) for the film Hollywood Party. Mickey does appear in black and white, and a color Silly Symphony “Hot Chocolate Soldiers” is incorporated into the film – but those are separate bits of animation. Mickey’s first color appearance was in a cartoon made for the Academy Awards banquet in 1932/ Parade of the Award Nominees. The first theatrically released Mickey Mouse cartoons was The Band Concert, from 1935

There are a number of good books about Hirschfeld’s work, and an Oscar-nominated documentary, The Line King, so there is no dearth of Hirschfeld to be enjoyed. That doesn’t make The Hirschfeld Century unwelcome or redundant. Part of the magic of art is the ability to capture personality in a portrait, not just the shape and lineaments of a face or body. Hirschfeld was a magician.

* The book is a stand-alone, not merely an accompanying volume to the exhibition. For example, there is no list of works on display or other material usually found in catalogs.

The Hirschfeld Century, edited and with text by David Leopold, is published by Alfred A. Knopf; 320 pages; $40.00. For more about Al Hirschfeld, check out the Al Hirschfeld Foundation website.

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