The End of the Line: Al Hirschfeld left thousands of artistic works, but no artistic heir.

Photo by Vince Bucci / Getty Images

The Hirschfeld century: portrait of an artist and his time by David Léopold; Alfred A. Knopf; 320 pages; $ 40.00

For painter Paul Klee, a line was simply “a point for a walk”. In the case of Al Hirschfeld (1903-2003), this march lasted 86 years, each of them a triumph of perception and drawing. The dean of theater cartoonists is currently celebrated in two ways, one on the walls, the other between the cloth covers. The New York Historical Society opened its fall season with an exhibition of Hirschfeld’s drawings and paintings, produced over nearly nine decades, longer than Picasso’s time of creation. And if it is true, as comedian George Burns pointed out, that “Hirschfeld was not a Picasso”, he added, “but then, Picasso was not a Hirschfeld”.

Just before World War I, the Hirschfeld family moved from St. Louis to New York. Developing an interest in sculpture, the young Al took a few courses at the National Academy of Design. One day he realized that “the sculpture was just a drawing you could stumble upon in the dark.” As for the illustration, the prodigy immediately realized, working posters for silent film studios, including Goldwyn, Selznik and Universal Pictures. Within a few years, he stood out for his elegant use of light and shadow and for his celebrity sketches that seemed to be in perpetual motion. Nearly a century later, Laurel and Hardy are still frolicking happily, Charlie Chaplin grins maniacally, Norma Shearer speaks lyrically – each recognizable, but exaggerated in a new style.

Looking back, Hirschfeld once remarked: “The whole trick in art is to stay alive. If you live long enough, everything turns out, the drawing gets better, life gets better. This is what he did for Al. Decade after decade his work has become more precise and more economical. He captured the Broadway opening nights for Sunday New York Times and Hollywood performances for any publication that would pay its fees, from TV guide and Saturday exam To The New Yorker and Time. Each time, he used the ingredients of another show business illustrator, Toulouse Lautrec: affection, insight, wonder and genius, plus a hint of salt.

Take for example the naughty portrayal of Al from the Marx Brothers in the MGM lobby map for A day at the races. The studio shot of Groucho and his foil, Margaret Dumont, looks like an antique descended from the attic. Next to it is a Hirschfeld caricature of siblings coming out of a curtain. It stays as fresh and funny as the day it was drawn.

The Company’s exhibition is accompanied by a richly illustrated volume, The Hirschfeld century. Image scores are, of course, by the winner; the text is by curator and authority Hirschfeld David Leopold. He points out that today, “Millennials view Hirschfeld’s designs more as art than recordings of specific performances, not having had a lifetime of seeing designs announcing the latest opening. Al’s goal was a drawing that “could stand on his own,” and time now shows how successful he was. ”

When I interviewed Hirschfeld for the Oscar nominated documentary about his life, King of the line, he insisted on declaring: “I don’t know how I do what I do.” Working in blissful ignorance, he captured the essence of explosive performers like Carol Channing, Zero Mostel and Luciano Pavoratti – and followed that up by introducing the entire cast of Hair without a single recognizable star. He drew African Americans without the use of hatching or shading, Christopher Plummer playing John Barrymore to make the image miraculously resemble the two men, and offered a self-portrait of the artist turning his brain into an inkwell and dipping into it. his feather. . Each time, the production seemed to surprise him as much as his devotees, a burgeoning group of academics and art critics, as well as the millions of readers who just loved to have fun.

As he grew older, Al became more recognizable than his subjects, going from a dark-haired Svengali type to a white-haired gentleman described by comedian SJ Perelman as “a pair of liquid brown eyes, delicately edged in red, a innocence to charm the heart of the fiercest aboriginal, and a beard that would swallow anything from a tsetse fly to a Sumatran tiger. In short, a remarkable combination of Walt Whitman, Lawrence of Arabia and Moe, my favorite waiter at Lindy’s. This combination could cause a buzz among audiences every time he and his wife, actress Dolly Haas, assumed their orchestra seats.

By observing the behavior of people in the show on and off the stage, Al learned the value of publicity. The name of the Hirschfelds only child, Nina, began to appear in all the cartoons, often five or six times in the same drawing, hidden in an actress’ hairstyle or costume, in her co- star, or in the landscape. Readers spent many Sunday mornings trying to find them.

What they never found was the underlying reason for Hirschfeld’s success. He has kept it hidden for the century that his life has embraced. His talent was such that he could easily have become the greatest political cartoonist of his time. But as he admitted, he didn’t have the venom for partisan sniping. With his gift for color and decoration, he could easily have become one of America’s greatest designers. But that would have prevented him from accessing the studio on the third floor of his 95th Street home where, sitting on a barber’s chair, he continued to organize important figures within the confines of an oblong space.

Plus, according to Hirschfeld, he had enough money, a good job, grandchildren and, after Dolly’s death, a happy second marriage to theater historian Louise Kerr, 33 years his junior. If there was no one to take his place in the years to come, so be it. When asked if he had ever thought about retiring, the nonagenarian had the same response as the octogenarian and septuagenarian: “How could I give up these opening nights?

Al’s secret was embedded in these lines. He wasn’t just a performing artist, he was a devotee. Struck by the aisle of Night One, he himself has become a performance artist, and the tale of his life and career is one of the great love stories of the 20th century. Better yet, this affection was rewarded. Ticket holders at Kinky Boots can see the evidence nightly by viewing the marquee at the Hirschfeld Theater on 45th Street. It was consecrated in 2002, the year before Al died at the productive age of 99, a cartoon of the Marx Brothers lying unfinished on his drawing board.

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