Around The Town

The American Theater 1962-2022 as seen by Al Hirschfeld

“Al had one of the only unique styles in the history of art.” Caricaturist David Levine

By: Alix Cohen

December 1, 2022: For a lover of the stage, paging through a book of Al Hirschfeld’s theater art is an act of remember when. Circumstances, company, occasion, and impressions are recalled. Those productions one hasn’t seen evoke saudade, a Portuguese word for something not personally experienced for which one nonetheless feels nostalgia. The latter is akin to phantom limb syndrome. It may not be real, but you sense it moving.

“Al had one of the only unique styles in the history of art.” Caricaturist David Levine

By: Alix Cohen

December 1, 2022: For a lover of the stage, paging through a book of Al Hirschfeld’s theater art is an act of remember when. Circumstances, company, occasion, and impressions are recalled. Those productions one hasn’t seen evoke saudade, a Portuguese word for something not personally experienced for which one nonetheless feels nostalgia. The latter is akin to phantom limb syndrome. It may not be real, but you sense it moving.

In his perceptive introduction, Michael Kimmelman notes that the artist didn’t always know what a play was about. He “cared about visual cues…the way an actress crossed the stage or cocked her head…” Drawings finished at home were, the journalist writes, “abstractions of the drama.”

The King and I 1951

Hirschfeld captured the essence of someone’s likeness (in a role) with the minimum strokes observation required. These were, according to critic Brooks Atkinson, “nimble lines that fly humorously over pieces of white Bristol board,” never static on a page. Back home, the artist would painstakingly trace pencil in ink on Bristol board.

He immediately zeroed in on prominent features or characteristics, that which made his subject distinctive. Exaggeration worked towards recognition. To be depicted was a badge of honor. Few objected to a less than flattering drawing. Kimmelman points out that photographs can seem dated, while a Hirschfeld drawing looks as fresh as it did before ink dried.

Many call the term “caricaturist” a misnomer as applied here. There was sometimes humor, but never narrow malice in Hirschfeld’s work. His skill and creativity was a kind of visual poetry. Michelangelo said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” The man in the old barber chair (preferred studio seating) left out/cut away what wasn’t necessary.

Austin Pendleton, Julia Migenes, Tanya Everett, Joanna Merlin, Zero Mostel, Gino Conforti, Maria Karnilova Fiddler on the Roof 1964

Al Hirschfeld (1903-2003) arrived from St. Louis when New York still had farms. He studied at The Art Students League, then in London and Paris before extensive travel. A brief political phase elicited graphic, visual satire (in The Masses) but didn’t stick. Kimmelman compares the iconoclast’s approach to that of Max Beerbohm and Miguel Covarrubias (Vanity Fair) rather than Daumier and Rowlandson. He had a light touch. “People strike me as ludicrous,” the artist said. 

Through a theater connection, he freelanced comic drawings for the New York Herald Tribune. It was  The New York Times, however, where most of us became familiar with seven decades of work. Hirschfeld was a figurehead at the prow of good ship Arts & Leisure. He said he realized he had become an institution when the editors at the Times stopped critiquing his work.

The Marx Brothers in Animal Crackers 1974

The artist wasn’t then solely in the employ of the Times, however, nor was his work exclusively black on white. Hirschfeld’s color paintings were commissioned by magazines such as Life, American Mercury, Look, TV Guide, Collier’s, The New Yorker, Playbill and Rolling Stone. He created more work for films than theater, at one point becoming an art director at Selznick Pictures. He illustrated books and accepted private commissions. Prominent figures felt a Hirschfeld meant cultural legitimacy.

Sarah Brightman and Michael Crawford in The Phantom of the Opera 1988

In 1945, he celebrated the birth of his daughter NINA, by hiding/incorporating her name in his weekly submission. The number of NINAs concealed is indicated by a digit written to the right of his signature. (If that can’t be found, either NINA appears only once or the drawing was completed before she was born.) Much to her father’s surprise, the NINAs attracted a rabid following. Giving them up was not an option. Hirschfeld quipped it was easier to hide them than it was to answer all the mail. 

Al Hirschfeld and NINA

We begin the book with Man of La Mancha – Richard Kiley’s sunken cheeks and narrow facial hair, Irving Jacobson’s bulbous nose, Joan Diener’s tiny waist and pronounced jaw. Hirschfeld’s image for Funny Girlfinds pigeon-toed Barbra Streisand, whose whole face seems to be schnoz, staring at a mirror reflection of the real Fanny Brice. Lauren Bacall’s widow’s peak, top lip and swan neck – turned just so (Cactus Flower) share a page with depiction of Irene Papas that resembles a cubist Picasso (That Summer – That Fall). Walter Matthau and Art Carney (The Odd Couple) are practically audible. How Hirschfeld managed to represent the chaotic pile of actors from Hair only he knows.

Barbra Streisand Funny Girl 1964; Hair 1968

“No one ‘writes’ more accurately of the performing arts than Al Hirschfeld. He accomplishes on a blank page with his pen and ink in a few strokes what many of us need a lifetime of words to say…We who work in the theater are challenged every Sunday to live up to Mr. Hirschfeld. He has more than lived up to us.”  The Importance of Being Hirschfeld by Terrance McNally 1991

Multifaceted entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr. inspired seven separate aspects before the artist finished, including one when he was in the Broadway production of Stop the World I Want To Get Off. He has no bones, but oh that’s him! With Elizabeth Ashley, there are Keane eyes, turned down mouth, languid slouch, as specific as Rene Auberjonois who looks like a graceful Calder wire sculpture. Hirschfeld drew playwrights, lyricists, musicians, composers, producers…The faces of Mike Nichols and Maggie Smith are as minimal as that of Charlie Brown, yet describe them perfectly. Joe Papp’s unruly mane, pipe, and thick furrowed brow exemplify the man.

Al Hirschfeld

Sunday in the Park with George gives us not only the pouty, busty, curl eruption of Bernadette Peters and brooding Mandy Patinkin, but figures from the Seurat painting. Barnum chronicles a full stage of actors in acrobat mode. A powerful drawing of Audra McDonald and Anthony Crivello (Marie Christine) exudes drama and connection. Sunset Boulevardoffers as elaborate a set illustration as it does characters fronted by Glenn Close’s Theda Bara eyes and bedecked body. Liliane Montevecchi and Charles Busch are every bit the femme fatales they were in person.

The book closes with Tommy Tune preserved mid-dance, arms gracefully stretched out like bird wings, possibly in the act of rising.

Tommy Tune 2002

Tommy Tune 2002

A marvelous volume. A marvelous gift.

All photos courtesy of The Al Hirschfeld Foundation

W. Dryfoos’ documentary The Line King will give you a glimpse of artist in life.

The American Theater 1962-2002 as seen by Al Hirschfeld
Published by The Al Hirschfeld Foundation

Click to Read More on Hirschfeld Book on Theaterlife.com