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The 20th century’s greatest American illustrator

NONFICTION

The Hirschfeld Century:

Portrait of an Artist and His Age

By Al Hirschfeld, edited and with text by David Leopold

Knopf

318 pages, $40

By Jeff Simon

Strictly speaking, Al Hirschfeld never made it to 100. When he died in 2003, he was six months shy of it.

But if the 20th century – Henry Luce’s “American Century” – belonged to any one person, Al Hirschfeld possessed as much of it as anyone.

The 20th century in America was when show business – what some of us can’t help thinking of now as The Entertainment Industrial Complex – continued its steady ascent in importance with each passing decade. And Al Hirschfeld’s caricatures all but defined the look of American and English show business in the 20th century.

His artistic style became the visual language in which show business announced itself to the English-speaking world – everything from theater to movies, popular and classical music, television and almost any genre and medium where eyes and ears would connect in search of entertainment, enlightenment, education and edification.

Along the way, his specific era of American endeavor saw him collect attendance records. He’s said, for instance, to have been there for more Broadway first nights than anyone else in the history of American theater.

By the time of his death in January 2003, his characteristically lean lines and fierce dynamism in caricatures of the famous and not-so-famous became one way in which Americans thought of renown in the 20th century, whether it was his 1929 poster of King Vidor’s “Hallelujah” (the “first all-black musical by a major studio” whose Hirschfeld poster was completed before the film was made, cast or written) or his 1993 cover caricature of Jerry Seinfeld for TV Guide in honor of his show’s finale.

It is the New York Times with which we most associate Hirschfeld’s extraordinary work but when you read this book by Hirschfeld’s longtime associate and archvist David Leopold, you realize that his work was everywhere – the Herald Tribune, the Times, magazines, book and record covers, postage stamps, wherever there was a place with a perceived show business need and simultaneously spoke that great American visual dialect called Hirschfeld.

It was, according to Leopold, the New Yorker’s John Held Jr. that influenced the immediately identifiable fluid Hirschfeld line that Americans revered for more than half a century.

“At the regular lunches the (New Yorker) art department staff held at Barbetta, a midtown Italian restaurant, Al became a close friend of Held’s. It seems an unlikely friendship, because Held was a multimillionaire illustrator with homes in Connecticut and Florida, while Al was an artist living on Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village whose movie [poster] work was simply a way for him to pay his rent while he pursued more serious easel painting. Yet Al believed his friendship with Held was a decisive relationship for him, both in terms of art and in his outlook on life. Held’s thin line, derived from the Greek vases and La Vie Parieiesnne, an illustrated French magazine according to Al, was another essential ingredient in Hirschfeld’s early caricatures,”

Anyone seeing more than a little of the spindly genius of Aubrey Beardsley in the work of the later Hirschfeld must be excused a bit too.

Eventually, connoisseurs of Hirschfeld’s drawings learned to be able to spot where he’d hidden his daughter’s name Nina in a matter of 30 seconds or less. It was scarcely needed as a form of identification.

Caricatures of an entirely trans-oceanic world of show business were, as the century wore on, treated by theatrical, musical, movie and TV figures as either part of their profession’s incomparable gifts or its many, many entitlements.

In Hirschfeld’s huge and all-encompassing artistic life, he wrote too. In a 1992 interview with Charlie Chaplin, Hirschfeld wrote “I watched this man who dares to be simple, as fascinated and amused as the first time I saw him in the movies. He talks and thinks pictorially, knowing every second how he looks, and not caring what he says.”

Among the superabundance of choice anecdotes in this book – whose chief function, obviously is to collect Hirschfeld’s century-defining work – is one about the artist and Liberace, whose portrait he created for Collier’s magazine.

Liberace “so admired the portrait, in which the artist gave him a heart-shaped face, that his representatives contacted Al to acquire it. When Al quoted a sum, they wrote back ‘a furiously worded letter apprising me of Mr. Liberace’s great collection of paintings…All of the paintings in the collection were portraits done by great artists and up to now no one had ever asked for money. I responded immediately, apologizing for the misunderstanding and and my seeming ingratitude at being selected for inclusion in this remarkable collection. I promised to faithfully dispatch, without further ado, the original painting to Mr. Liberace posthaste without payment of any kind to hang in his living room….on one condition – that they send me Mr. Liberace to hang in mine.”

From our standpoint in the 21st century, Hirschfeld far more deserved to hang the real Liberace in his home for decoration than Liberace deserved a genuine Hirschfeld original to distinguish HIS self-deifying home.

A great American figure and his work are within this book – gloriously illustrated, as well as amply explained, explored and chronicled.

Irresistible.

Jeff Simon is The News’ Arts and Books Editor.