Art or art?

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Al Hirschfeld: The Line King

The Line King: The Al Hirschfeld Story is a documentary by Susan W. Dryfoos on the life of caricaturist, Al Hirschfeld. Released September of 1996, it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Dryfoos interviewed Hirschfeld beginning in the 1980's and completed the documentary in the mid 1990's. There is footage before and after the death of his second wife, Dolly Haas, a marriage that facilitated and spanned the greatest portion of his career. For the DVD release there is a bonus feature of Hirschfeld in 2002 at the age of 99 working on a caricature of Paul Newman. The biographical content is thorough and entertaining. A wide range of his art is shown including early sculpture and watercolors. There are scenes of him working on several drawings.

Al Hirschfeld was a caricaturist credited for visually chronicling entertainment of the 20th century using a wildly expressive, yet elegant, line drawing. For years his art was the face of the Arts and Entertainment section of the New York Times. He was known for his ability to identify and convey human characteristics in a manner recognizable to other people using line drawings. He described himself as a "characterist." His fluid caricature style inspired the visual design of supervising animator Eric Goldberg in Disney's Aladdin (1992) and the Rhapsody in Blue segment of Fantasia 2000 (1999). [1]

Incidentally, when Hirschfeld learned of his influence on the Fantasia 2000 segment he expressed interest in participating had he only been 50 years younger. I suspect the characters would have behaved quite differently had they been brought to life by Hirschfeld. Although the lines do borrow from his style, when he created his caricatures using line Hirschfeld was seeing something in the energy of characters brought to life by people. The animators at Disney were attempting to bring to life an overall character derived from Hirschfeld's style of art. Somehow every character in the resulting segment is the same while every character depicted by Hirschfeld was unique. All of the attention seems to have been focused on his lines (the penmanship) while Hirschfeld's caricature of the personality (the message) was missed. Imagine trying to make a Hitchcock style thriller having only seen his work with the sound turned off. Hirschfeld's lines speak volumes and are not just distinct lines on paper. A very important dimension of Hirschfeld's art was lost in the translation and the segment only touches the surface of his style as a consequence.

The Line King is filled with sound bites and clips of people, most of whom were his subjects, making insightful comments about Hirschfeld and his work. This project predates the popular theatrical DVD format which typically includes bonus material serving to fill space using mini-documentaries focused on the making of the film, its director and stars. With everyone on the payroll it is not uncommon that the accolades approach hyperbole or seem a bit taxed and obligatory. In contrast, The Line King is very genuine. People felt honored to be caricatured by Hirschfeld. The insights about the man and his work ring true. The sincerity shines through.

"The premier entertainment caricaturist of our century." ~Walter Isaacson

Although his art has been frequently perceived as depicting people in an unflattering manner Hirschfeld was not intentionally mean or unpleasant. He liked people. His admiration of people enhanced his ability to see the things that would communicate an essence of their personality. He grew more genial with age. In one segment Hirschfeld describes how it had become almost impossible to offend people citing a caricature of David Merrick, whom he thought he had presented negatively. Merrick ultimately bought the drawing and used it as a Christmas card [2]. This, however, is not to suggest that his art did not occasionally spark controversy aside from testing the egos of a few actors prone to histrionics. In 1998 his caricature of Louis Armstrong, part of a group composition, for Time was replaced with an alternate commission swapping out Armstrong and Charlie Chaplin for Bob Dylan. Hirschfeld insisted the original drawing was a valid caricature while some people at Time believed it could be "troublesome" with potentially racist overtones. It seems that Louis Armstrong himself was partially responsible for Hirschfeld's interpretation of him. [3]

The film takes you through multiple decades in Hirschfeld's career. There is a bonus segment filmed several years after the main feature which shows a contrastingly frail Hirschfeld at 99 drawing Paul Newman's performance in the play, Our Town. Hirschfeld attributed his longevity to "work" in a 1994 interview on The Charlie Rose Show. In this documentary he attributes his longevity to his parents who lived into their 90's. In his career it has been estimated that Hirschfeld created at least 10,000 drawings. Said to have been working on a caricature of the Marx brothers that day [4], Al Hirschfeld died in his sleep 6 months shy of 100 years old on January 20th, 2003.

This is primarily a biographical account of Hirschfeld's career yet there are opportunities to observe some of his technique. He would attend rehearsals before the official opening of a play. During this time he would sketch out field studies. Sometimes these would include notes indicating various characteristics he observed in his subjects. He would refine his studies before working out the expressive line work with ink back in the studio where he had photographs, magazine clippings and Xeroxed references of his subjects. As with the evolution of his style, he refined and reduced down to the simplest form that conveyed the essence of his subjects.

"After 70 years of drawing you have to improve otherwise you are a dolt. It is a question of elimination and understanding, of trial and error and suddenly something happens, an epiphany." ~Hirschfeld

Hirschfeld fell into caricaturing. He had made a drawing when someone suggested he submit it to a newspaper. It was used by the newspaper and they later came back for more. For an important period of his life he lived in the Far East. That experience was significantly influential. He said it was not by accident that the greatest graphic artists in history had come from there. He attributed this to the light bleaching everything out creating contrast with dark shadows and white lights. The edges of form are enhanced and things are seen in silhouette. Hirschfeld understood how the silhouette could convey everything about a form. He found similarities between the light of the Far East and that within stage lighting. He felt at home in a theater environment.

"When I was about fourteen, my mother took me to see a musical comedy and that was my first experience in the theater and I was enchanted with it. It transported me to another world. You might say that I was stage-struck. I was mesmerized by the stage."

"Nature is really terrific but I wouldn't want to live there." ~Hirschfeld

It appears that his evolution as an artist was intuitive and organic. Although his exceptional talent was recognized early Hirschfeld never set out to make a living as a caricaturist. He was disappointed when people did not appreciate his other art forms like sculpture and watercolor painting. He gravitated to a series of experiences and opportunities and in the process developed his style. It is a byproduct of his personality, experiences and preferences.

It is unclear whether Hirschfeld had the objectivity to understand and articulate how he captured the essence of a character in line. When speaking about it he was usually imprecise. In more than one interview he said after you live so long you learn things about people. He knew it was extraordinary to be able to communicate something recognizable to other people and that it was his forte using a language of line. When it came down to describing how he did this the explanations amounted to making an observation that encompassed the physical form, movement, energy, personality and a consequential whole greater than the sum of the parts then translating these elements into a drawing using lines. It came naturally. He did not have the experience of taking steps clearly defined in his mind beginning from a point of objectively not knowing how to do it through the process of developing the ability with a goal to communicate with expressive lines.

"The artist Paul Klee said that a line is a dot out for a walk. With Al Hirschfeld, it's out for a dance, it's out for a jump, it's out for a frolic, ....just watch the line and you'll see it curlicue just like music." ~Stefan Kanfer

Attending rehearsals before a play's official opening Hirschfeld was still able to gain a sense of the stage character's personality and overall energy of the stage presentation well before these shows had had a chance to build a cohesive momentum. His final drawings usually accompanied a written review by Brooks Atkinson, who was considered "the conscience of our theatrical times." Hirschfeld never knew in advance what was going to be written about a play as Brooks Atkinson would not write his reviews until after he attended the official openings.

"...he has a great deal of affection for the people he draws." ~Stefan Kanfer

A few bits of info:  In 1991 Hirschfeld became the first artist in history to have his name printed on a USPS stamp booklet. The comedian collection was so successful he was again commissioned in 1994 to portray a collection of stars from the silent screen era. In his studio he used an old barber's chair that he felt was superior in design for use at a drawing table. In the documentary he describes it as, "the last functional chair made, I think." He usually worked seven days per week and quit before sundown, preferring natural light. He worked large on 24x36 illustration board. He preferred Gillott Crow quill pen nibs to build up his lines and sometimes went through quite a few before completing a drawing. 

"You always feel the drawing you are working on is the best you've ever done, ...I am only interested in the present." ~Hirschfeld

The Line King: The Al Hirschfeld Story
Running Time: 86 Minutes
Rating: Art
Description from the Jacket: The Line King tells the amazing story of Al Hirschfeld, creator of thousands of famous drawings of stars and celebrities for more than sixty years. Nominated for an Academy Award® for Best Documentary Feature (1996), The Line King celebrates Hirschfeld’s many years of work for The New York Times, where his drawings were a centerpiece of the Sunday Arts section. With appearances by Lauren Bacall, Carol Channing, Joan Collins, Barbara Walters, Robert Goulet, and many others, The Line King is a fascinating portrait of the artist as a cultural icon.
DVD Extras: An essay by Michael Kimmelman, a gallery of Hirschfeld drawings and a short segment with Hirschfeld working on a caricature of Paul Newman in his studio. 

Odds and ends and one or two degrees of Al Hirshfeld [5]

On and slightly off topic including a critique of the Blackwing 602 pencil used by early cartoonists and animators, a Disney studio rejection letter to a woman inquiring about employment back in June of 1938 and a New York Times article also from 1938 critiquing Disney's Snow White written by Al Hirschfeld.

I was on Charlie's PBS talk show, but here the table was turned and he's the subject on my show. I'm more interested in drawing him than in him trying to draw me out anyway. I wanted to show what it is that makes him such a gifted interviewer. I've boiled it down to the wry expression and the hands---once again they're the telegraphers, graphically, of inner character. Charlie's hands are particularly expressive. He uses them like a concert conductor during his discussions to egg on or hold up a particular thought or guest. his expressive face also tells his interviewee what he's asking and what he's happy and not happy hearing. He's a great traffic cop of talk. But he does it all with that great Southern charm, so you gladly surrender t his superb conducting. And his eyebrows and hair always are that unruly---though they might just be a casualty of the Public Television production budget ~Excerpt from the book by Al Hirschfeld titled: Hirschfeld On Line.

D.T. Nethery and The Inkling Chronicles Blog
Hirschfeld's critique of the animation in Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
January 30th, 1938


When presented with the concept of adopting his visual style for the Rhapsody in Blue segment, Hirschfeld told Goldberg that if he was 50 years younger he would have been on a train the next day to work on the project. 

Eric Goldberg showed Rhapsody in Blue to Al Hirschfeld shortly before the artist's 96th birthday. Hirschfeld's 3rd wife Louise called it the best birthday present he could have received. 

There is a nice story of a young Pete Emslie/aspiring artist who was able to contact Hirschfeld through TV Guide. They exchanged a few letters. Years later the boy, now an adult freelancing for Disney, was in NY and decided to look up Al. He was actually listed in the phone book and even answered the phone. Al remembered him from the letters and invited him over to his house. He showed him around the studio then had tea and cake with Dolly downstairs.

A few of the letters corresponding via snail mail: The Cartoon Cave


[1] Aladdin and Fantasia 2000:


Stefan Kanfer: City Journal Article
The Observer Article:

[4] Congressional Record 3/25/2003 Hearing on House Resolution 46 honoring the life and legacy of Al Hirschfeld

[5] Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon Game


The Disney Rejection Letter: "...women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen as that work is done entirely by young men. .....girls are not considered for the training school."

The letter does go on to say that women do trace characters on clear celluloid sheets and fill in the cartoons on the backside "according to directions." The letter ends by discouraging further action in pursuit of work at the studio because there are so few openings in proportion to the number of girls applying for positions. It is worth pointing out that the author of the letter was also a woman.

The Blackwing 602:

Images © The Al Hirschfeld Foundation, Castle Hill Productions, Susan Dryfoos Productions, New York Times History, Margo Feiden Galleries, Time, Life and Disney respectively.