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That's Al, Folks

A pair of exhibits and a pair of books celebrate Al Hirschfeld, America's ''characterist'' extraordinaire. logo

Reviewing Walt Disney's Snow White for the New York Times in 1938, artist Al Hirschfeld dismissed the film's central figure as an "awkward automaton." Hirschfeld catalogued Snow White's "full complement of fingers and fingernails, eyelashes, one-dimensional head, bare arms without solidity, and uninventive neck," then lamented that "the lovely voice" given her by the Disney studio "only heightens the effect of a ventriloquist's dummy." Hirschfeld's reservations about the Disney style were grounded in his view that, for graphic representation of the human form, simple figures stand a far greater chance of conveying personality than complex ones.

In the decades since he penned his disparaging review of the Snow White aesthetic, Hirschfeld has become known as "The Line King", won a special Tony Award, has been named a "Living Legend" by the Library of Congress, and become the first artist permitted to sign his name to a series of U.S. postage stamps. In 1994, over half a century after the Times review, the Disney organization released Aladdin, featuring a mercurial genie whose fluid lineation and spare execution are an out-and-out tribute to Hirschfeld's work. Created by animator Eric Goldberg and voiced by Robin Williams, the genie of Aladdin demonstrates that, in the 64 years since Snow White, Hirschfeld's philosophy of art has had a powerful impact on American cartooning--and on American pop culture as a whole.

Hirschfeld was born in 1903, as the movie industry was getting started and just after New York's commercial theater had moved to the Broadway district. Following a stint in semi-pro baseball (Lou Gehrig was one of his teammates), the artist got his professional start drawing advertisements for Goldwyn, Universal, and Selznick pictures in New York. He was simultaneously devoting considerable energy to "serious" painting. When the movies migrated to Hollywood, young Hirschfeld took a Parisian sabbatical to mingle with the marquee names of the Lost Generation and exhibit his watercolors in what was then the mecca of Western art. Returning to New York, he devoted less attention to painting and more to drawing, transforming himself into what he likes to call a "characterist" (the rest of the world prefers "caricaturist.") Hirschfeld's subjects have always been divided between the luminaries of theater and those of film, necessitating long stays in California for the artist; but, ultimately, he is best known as the more-or-less official caricaturist of the New York stage and the New York Times.

Hirschfeld depicts Hirschfeld
(The Margo Feiden Galleries, Ltd.)
Now through January 20, 2002, museums on both coasts are offering fresh looks at Hirschfeld's connection to the entertainment industry. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills has an exhibition titled "Hirschfeld's Hollywood," organized by the artist's personal archivist, David Leopold. Meanwhile, The Museum of the City of New York is offering "Hirschfeld's New York," supervised by chief curator Clare Bell. Upscale publishing house Harry N. Abrams has issued handsome matching volumes, Hirschfeld's Hollywood: The Film Art of Al Hirschfeld, with a critical assessment by Leopold, and Hirschfeld's New York, with an essay by Bell. The books are officially catalogues for the museum shows but are designed to serve as stand-alone introductions to the artist long after the exhibitions have closed. Both are light weight (literally and figuratively), eminently portable, lovingly produced, and splendid looking, with more than 100 illustrations each.

Hirschfeld's New York features fanciful sightseer maps; cartoons set in period diners and dives; sketches of shows such as The Iceman Cometh, On the Town, Guys and Dolls, West Side Story, and Two for the Seesaw; and caricatures of Joe Gould, Joe Papp, Woody Allen, and Ed Koch, among many others. These items hum with the city's energy, projecting Hirschfeld's gimlet-eyed view of jazzy, glamorous, risqué New York over a period of many years. Bell situates Hirschfeld in the social and political milieu of his long adulthood, examining his work in relation to individuals (like the Mexican painter and illustrator Miguel Covarrubias) and movements (like the Paris art scene of the 1920s or the craftsmen of the Art Deco style). Her essay, like the New York City exhibition, charts the ever-increasing simplicity of Hirschfeld's drawing style from decade to decade.

Hirschfeld's Hollywood takes a more biographical approach. Leopold has selected images that document the relationships of Hirschfeld, a life-long freelancer, to particular studios and filmmakers rather than to the City of Los Angeles or the State of California. The West Coast exhibit is far less concerned than its New York counterpart with intellectual and aesthetic influences, but Leopold's observations on the impact of Hirschfeld's 1932 visit to Bali are provocative: "He was enchanted by the dramatic shadows of Javanese puppets and the art of the island," he writes, "and his sympathetic reaction to this environment instilled a belief that caricature expressed the magic of a child's world."

The Hirschfeldian vision is, indeed, magical and childlike. That's amply demonstrated by the caricature that graces the slip cover of the 1956 original Broadway cast album of My Fair Lady, which made Hirschfeld's swirls and flourishes beloved to Baby Boomers. That famous caricature, which is also on the CD packaging of the recording, features an angelic George Bernard Shaw peering over the clouds to manipulate marionette Rex Harrison in Henry Higgins garb--who, in turn, is manipulating marionette Julie Andrews, fitted out with the straw hat, shawl, and flower basket of Eliza Doolittle. Though the My Fair Lady drawing doesn't appear in either of the two new books on Hirschfeld, the images chosen by the editors capture that same whimsical, juvenile spirit.

?Oscar Nominees,? an image included
in Hirschfield?s Hollywood
The catalogues' essays, and the introductions by Frank Rich (for New York) and Larry Gelbart (for Hollywood), are too brief to make a case for Hirschfeld as a great American artist. Bell and Leopold skirt many questions, such as the place of caricature in the hierarchy of the graphic arts, to settle the issue of their subject's long-term significance. But that's a good thing; with the artist set to turn 99 next June 21, this isn't the time for establishing his place in the pantheon. The editors at Harry N. Abrams have wisely elected to devote almost two thirds of Hirschfeld's New York and Hirschfeld's Hollywood to reproductions of illustrations against generous amounts of white space, rather than to critical arguments.
One of the benefits of attending a Sunday performance of City Center Encores! is watching Hirschfeld, looking like one of his self-caricatures come to life, padding down the aisle and claiming his seat in an auditorium filled with New York theater colleagues. Hirschfeld is the only person present with a link to every theater season commemorated by the Encores! series. And, presumably, he is the only one who was present at the birth of the modern musical on December 27, 1927: opening night of Ziegfeld's Show Boat. More power to Hirschfeld's Hollywood and Hirschfeld's New York (both the books and the exhibitions) for celebrating the aesthetic of The Line King and leaving the question of his ultimate achievement for another season.

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