Friday, May 22, 2015

The Hirschfeld Century: The Art of Al Hirschfeld

Self portrait, 1985
Ink on board
Collection of Harvard University
© The Al Hirschfeld Foundation.
Al Hirschfeld's career as the dynamic, visual chronicler of the American theater spanned seven decades. With such longevity he drew everyone from Fanny Brice to Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt to Audra McDonald. The New York Historical Society's new exhibit The Hirschfeld Century: The Art of Al Hirschfeld is a broad look back at his iconic line drawings of celebrated actors of stage and screen as well as Hirschfeld's less well-known paintings and color illustrations.

Organized by his widow and second wife Louise Kerz Hirschfeld and guest curated by the author of the new book The Hirschfeld Century: The Art of Al Hirschfeld, David Leopold, the exhibit opens on May 22 and runs through October 12, 2015. Louise Kerz Hirschfeld was on hand to open the exhibit along with Hirschfeld's daughter, Nina, by his first wife actress Dolly Haas.

It is Nina who figures so personally in Hirschfeld's drawings. After she was born in 1945 he began to hide her name in his drawings. Searching for “the Ninas” became a favorite past time of many who would see his drawings in the New York Times. The exhibit includes the first Nina hidden in plain view in the background of a drawing of the show Are You With It? and Nina's Revenge where in a portrait of Nina Hirschfeld has instead hid his own name and Dolly’s name instead.

With the grand scale of this exhibit which includes over 100 images by Hirschfeld, you can see flickers of other artists and art movements in his work. His political lithographs from the 1930’s have a Daumier quality to them, with rich shading, striking points of focus, and powerful compositions. One could mistake his drawing of The Defiant Ones for a work by George Bellows with the thick musculature and tense energy between Poitier and Curtis. He created a promotional book for the Selznick film distribution company and it is a rich and colorful tapestry to rival William Morris. Even a portrait of Will Mahoney in Take the Air has an air of cubism in the shapes.
Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones, 1958
Ink on board
Collection of The Al Hirschfeld Foundation
© The Al Hirschfeld Foundation.

His series on Harlem in the 1940’s and his colorful images for The American Mercury magazine are unexpected forays into portraiture of regular folks and larger than life politicians. There is the same verve as his theatrical and film portraits (the sweeping eyebrows of labor leader John Lewis are a creature all their own) but the style and approach is much more varied in these lithographs and gouache on board.

Even work that is quintessential “Hirschfeld” has such a stylistic range. With this exhibit one can appreciate the different approaches he took over his life by seeing so many diverse examples in such close proximity. The heavy paint brush swoops of Ringo Starr’s hair are contrasted against the delicate feathers in the portrait of Richard Kiley in Man of LaMancha. Tommy Tune dancing with an array of feet beneath him has such a different feel than dancer Ted Shawn performing at Jacob’s Pillow where the trees in the background mirror his pose.
Tommy Tune in White Tie and Tails, 2002
Ink on board
Collection of Harvard University
© The Al Hirschfeld Foundation.

Although long associated with theater, Hirschfeld started out in film and some of his early movie posters and portraits of film industry figures like Will Hays (of the Hays Code) and David O. Selznick are on display.

Hirschfeld’s drawings have become the record of shows and artists who many of us would never have seen on stage. Walking through the exhibit you can feel the energy and enthusiasm for the craft of performance and the world of show biz--the joy, the larger than life characters, and the storytelling.

He cataloged so many plays and musicals through his drawings that these images of earlier productions still convey the feelings of those shows today--his drawing of The Visit (from a 1958 production of the play on Broadway) feels completely on point for the current musical incarnation playing on Broadway now. He fills the image with the peering eyes of the poor townsfolk (there are more eyeballs than heads) as they look pleadingly towards their possible benefactress. The exhibit ends with images Hirschfeld drew of past shows and movies that are now on Broadway including Gigi, The King and I, On the Town, On the Twentieth Century, and Doctor Zhivago (RIP).

The Hirschfeld Century book will be available at the Museum gift shop for six weeks before it is available to purchase everywhere on July 7th. Hal Prince, Louise Kerz Hirschfeld, and moderator Robert Osborne will be at the museum on May 28th to discuss the life and work of Al Hirschfeld.

I received a complimentary ticket to attend the show.

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