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Al Hirschfeld (1903–2003)

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Includes the name: Albert Hirschfeld

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Associated Works

The World of S.J.Perelman (Prion Humour Classics) (2000) — Illustrator — 39 eksemplarer
The lively years, 1920-1973 (1973) — Illustrator, nogle udgaver29 eksemplarer
Bach Greatest Hits (1991) — Omslagsfotograf/tegner/... — 9 eksemplarer
The Best Plays of 1956-1957 (1957) — Illustrator — 6 eksemplarer
Do Re Mi (1955) — Illustrator — 4 eksemplarer

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It was with the greatest anticipation that I pushed off reading the next books in my backlog when I received my copy of The American Theater As Seen By Hirschfeld. Everything else could wait while I imbibed some joy and exhilaration at the wonder of this grand institution of an artist. It, and he, did not disappoint.

For more decades than I’ve been around, Al Hirschfeld attended theater, made notes and rushed home to create a caricature of what he saw, for the front page of the Arts & Leisure section of the Sunday New York Times. His notes to himself included every detail of the costumes: designs on ties, ruffles on sleeves, short dress or long – everything. Makeup, hair – Hirschfeld had to reproduce it all better than any photographer, because he wanted to immortalize the moment, and put the reader in the front row.

Even if you couldn’t see the play yourself, you could live it vicariously through the pencils and pens of Al Hirschfeld. And for most people, that was their lifeline to theater. Fortunately, it was also the best they could possibly ask for.

So very much has been written about Hirschfeld, you might think there’s no point to reading the same analyses again. Two things about that: it is very much worthwhile to refresh your mind to all the facets of his work, as dissected by everyone who had anything to do with theater. And two, looking at all these drawings in one place points to some other aspects the critics seem to have missed, having lived with just one a week in real time.

Hirschfeld was of course, The Line King. He could say more with one continuous line than the authors of the play he just saw. Take a look at this example of Angela Lansbury floating over Lee Remick and Harry Guardino. Her arm and the sleeve covering it are more than perfectly accounted for by a single, sinuous line. Nobody else did or does that as well as Al Hirschfeld. He would routinely do the entire cast like that, on a single panel, from A Chorus Line to Chicago, to Rent, to all the works of Richard Rogers. It was the vibe he originated, the vibrant ethos of live theater. As Jules Feiffer said, “the work never happens in the past tense.” It is never outdated, old fashioned or stale. Even if it depicted ancient Rome, it was fresh, sharp and modern under Hirschfeld’s pen.

The most detailed work was for the actor’s face. He took insane liberties with their bodies, but the face, he recognized, was iconic. Ask any of the thousands of actors who clamored for an original Hirschfeld of themselves. It alone made them believe they made it on Broadway. No matter how ridiculous he made them look, in the context their role in the play, they treasured their Hirschfeld caricatures like no other award.

And yet. Going through four decades of these wonderful pieces, I noticed a couple of things I hadn’t before.

I often could not recognize the actor from the image. I would look at the actors and try to guess who they were. Having to try was bad enough, but when I read the caption naming everyone above, my reaction was - That’s not Glenn Close. That’s not Nathan Lane. That’s not Lily Tomlin. Sometimes, Hirschfeld just didn’t get it quite right. This shows up dramatically in a side by side comparison of two posters for Carol Burnett’s 1964 Broadway show. The face on the left is in no way that of Carol Burnett. The producers prevailed on Hirschfeld to redo it, giving her Carol Burnett hair, eyes and a Carol Burnett mouth. No question that the poster on the right is of Carol Burnett.

Second, the sheer number of names and faces I did not recognize is disturbing, at least to me. I have a whole shelf of Playbills from all the shows I have gone to over the decades. I remember seeing this star or that one in this play or that (often before they became household names), but there are many where I don’t remember anyone in it at all. And they don’t seem to have gone on to bigger and better things. Broadway is a launch pad for thousands wanting to hit the big time. Yet once they get there, they find their fifteen minutes of fame over. It is amazing how much top talent Broadway churns through. After giving it their all, and maybe being nominated for a Tony Award, all they walk away with is their Hirschfeld.

One other thing that stood out for me is how very little contact the characters in Hirschfeld drawings have with each other. They exist separately, standing, sitting, singing or dancing – by themselves, regardless of anyone else onstage. When they are coupled, they look past each other. Entire casts exist on a set, totally relating to themselves alone. Why didn’t they ever connect? Is that how Hirschfeld saw plays unfolding?

But even if they were complete fiction, these cartoon characters exude the essence of theater, giving it a life force for eternity. This is a delightful book of Broadway memories from 1962 to 2002, with probably 300 portraits, and I do hope the Hirschfeld Foundation, which owns all his works, sees fit to publish more.

David Wineberg

To see this same review with the Hirschfeld cartoon displayed in the text, see https://medium.com/the-straight-dope/the-pure-pleasure-of-caricaturist-al-hirsch...
… (mere)
DavidWineberg | Jan 6, 2024 |
darracu | Jan 31, 2019 |
Un genio de la Caricatura.
darracu | Jan 31, 2019 |
Uno de los genios de la caricatura universal. Este libro recopilatorio es una joyita.
darracu | Jan 31, 2019 |


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