Monday, June 21, 2010

Happy Birthday, Al Hirschfeld!

If Al Hirschfeld, the celebrated caricaturist were still around today, he would have been hitting his 107th birthday. As it is, however, the old boy passed away back in January 2003, just a few months shy of turning 100! Still, he had an amazing career drawing for many venues over his many decades, and was primarily associated with creating linear depictions of the Broadway shows for his regular stint with The New York Times.

Oddly, though, my first introduction to Hirschfeld's art was through one of the full colour covers he'd illustrated for TV Guide, which depicted the popular variety series, The Sonny and Cher Show, of which I was a big fan in my early teen years. I was entranced with the illustration, as it showed me a very different approach to caricature than what I had been then enjoying in MAD Magazine by the likes of Mort Drucker and Jack Davis. Whereas the two MAD artists drew more of what I call "distorted portrait" caricatures, exaggerating the features, yet still maintaining a sense of anatomical structure ( albeit Davis doing it looser and more cartoony than Drucker), Al Hirschfeld had a more stylistic and playful approach, abstracting the form into simple shapes and flowing lines. I cut out and saved that TV Guide cover and still have it today, as shown here.

I was a pretty bold little guy back then, and I was determined to get a fan letter to Al Hirschfeld, so I wrote to him care of TV Guide, being oblivious at the time to his more famous career illustrating for the Arts section of The New York Times. Well, the good folks at TV Guide actually forwarded my letter to Al, and it wasn't too long before I received a very nice response back from him. I ended up corresponding with him several more times over the next few years and I'll post several of these letters here for all to enjoy:

Some years later I ended up going to New York to freelance for Disney's Character Merchandise art department, the tale of which I'll save for another post. Prior to going there, I was determined to look up Al Hirschfeld when I was in town, and I took down one of my books of his art in the hopes of getting it autographed. After working in the Disney office the first week, I decided to try getting in touch with Al early on the weekend. Sure enough, he was listed in the NYC phone directory, so I gave him a call. Much to my excitement, he answered the phone and, when I explained that I used to correspond with him a few years earlier, he remembered me and told me I should come down to visit him that afternoon in his home studio!

I can still recall my excitement and nervous apprehension as I boarded the transit bus that would let me off within an easy walk of the old brownstone that he lived in. Once there, I rang the bell and was met at the door by Al's sweet wife, Dolly. She said Al was expecting me and that I could just make my way up the two flights of stairs to where he was working in his studio on his latest piece for The NY Times. One thing I recall was all of the framed originals that lined the stairway, including that painted cover featuring Sonny and Cher. So, as excited as I was to get upstairs to meet Al, I was also trying to take in all of the glorious original art I was passing on the way up!

When I got to the top of the stairs, I remember they ended facing into his studio, and there silhouetted by the light of a picture window, sitting in his antique barber's chair at his antique drafting table, was the great man himself, Al Hirschfeld! Though Al tended to have a somewhat stern, no nonsense appearance, he was actually a very warm and generous man, and I think he took a certain delight in showing off a lot of his original art to this young fan. I remember him showing me the piece he was currently working on (a Broadway show featuring Ellen Burstyn, as I recall) and I was struck by the size that he worked at. It seems to me that the illustration board was about 24 x 36, and Al showed me how he built up the thick and thin lines through multiple strokes of the tiny Gillott Crow Quill pen nibs he favoured. He said that the nibs were relatively fragile, and that he might go though nearly a dozen on such a large illustration. Of course, he always finished up a drawing by hiding a few NINA's throughout, as that was the name of his only daughter whose birth he'd celebrated with that novelty, and had continued it on ever since.

He then took a break from what he was working on and proceeded to pull out a bunch of his recent originals from a big steel flat file cabinet. One thing I remember well was when he showed me his annual piece for The NY Times where he would depict notable personalities from different fields, such as movies, literature, science, dance, etc. in a beautifully composed montage of figures. I had a chuckle when he started pointing to the actors depicted, saying "That's whatsisname from that movie, whatchamacallit...", as I suspect that his inability to recall their names was mostly due to his not being particularly impressed with that generation of film stars. After all, I had remembered him stating in one of his books that he always favoured movie stars that were larger than life personalities like W.C Fields and Zero Mostel, and that he found contemporary actors too ordinary and mundane with their more realistic acting styles.

After a while, Dolly called up to Al to let him know it was tea time, a ritual she had retained from her native Germany and that Al was happy to share with her. They insisted I join them for tea and cake and I remember just thinking what a lovely couple they were and how gracious they were to me. Unfortunately, the visit had to end soon after, as Al had to get back to finishing his drawing before sunset, as he always preferred to work by natural daylight rather than incandescent bulbs. Al happily signed my book and he and Dolly bid me adieu.

That afternoon spent with Al and Dolly Hirschfeld will always remain one of the happiest memories of my artistic career. Obviously, Al Hirschfeld's own stylistic approach has heavily influenced my own - I don't deny it. Still, I've tried to learn what I could through studying and analyzing his work, yet applying the approach of forming a "visual impression" of the subject, then abstracting the physical design and inner personality in my own way as much as I can. But he will always be my artistic mentor, his spirit and playfulness of line always helping to guide me in my own work. The caricature that heads up this post was one I drew of him sometime after having visited him. I sent him the original as a thank you gift, and asked if he could send me back the copy with his autograph. As you can see, he also added a NINA in the hair!

Please check out more of Hirschfeld's great caricatures at the website of his official representative, The Margo Feiden Galleries.


Alberto said...

That's a really wonderful story, it's nice to know that an artist of his status would be kind enough to respond to letters and meet with admirers. I sadly found out about Hirschfeld the day he died when i was in high school, the moment i saw his stuff i was hooked and I tried imitating his style, I even hid Nina's in my drawings!

This makes me want to be ambitious and meet someone i respect and admire before it's too late.

Skamitis said...

good job !
Al Hirschfeld was a great artist with his very own style !

Anonymous said...

What an amazing story! I love hearing about these stories where you actually get to meet a great artist like Al Hirschfield in person and even learn from them in their letters and such. Did you ever get meet any of the Nine Old Men, since you've freelanced for Disney's before? Or maybe someone like Chuck Jones?

Pete Emslie said...

Roberto: Since you asked about the Nine Old Men, here is a previous post you might be interested in reading.

Actually, aside from Frank and Ollie who I knew quite well, I'd also briefly met Ward Kimball and Marc Davis. I heartily recommend that everybody try to meet their artistic heroes, as usually these folks are able to live a a pretty normal life where they go about their daily business unrecognized by most people on the street. Therefore, when they are approached on those rare occasions by someone who knows and enjoys their work, they are often quite flattered and happy to chat and visit with them. Perhaps it was different back in the days before the internet, however. Now more artists have greater exposure through fan sites, etc.

Steven M. said...

Now thats cool.

Emily Byrne said...

That is a wonderful story, Pete--thanks for sharing it! And I remember that Sonny and Cher TV Guide cover too, that was my favorite show as a kid (about third grade then). I wish I had saved it and studied it as you did. Long Live Al H.

Eric Noble said...

Wonderful story. I'm so glad you got to meet some of your artistic heroes. I wish I could, but nobody lives close enough to Seattle (maybe Peter Bagge). That and I would be very shy around them.

I need to study Al Hirschfeld's work. That will have to be down the road, as I need to study the basics.

ted said...

WoW! What a great treat to be able to meet one of your heroes like that. Hirschfeld truly is one of the greats. Thank you so much for sharing this story with us.

Dylan said...

man those have got to be some of the most beautiful face drawings in the world