In 1926, a young man by the name of Al Hirschfeld sketched a caricature of an actor on a theatre program while attending a New York performance. A friend convinced him to copy it onto a clean sheet of paper and submit it to a newspaper. Thus was born one of the great caricaturists — more than 7000 published drawings, and a career that lasted until his death at 99 in 2003. Hirschfeld, who studied art in Paris and New York, had noted how sunlight bleached out colour and turned people into what he called “walking line drawings.” He later recalled how he became “enchanted with line” and began to use a unique style of simple, flowing lines to capture a personality or a performance.
Hirschfeld’s method of working was to “find” the essential characteristics of a face, body language or gesture by trial and error with a pencil. Only when he thought it to be right did he finish in ink. It’s amazing, when you think of it — you can pick a familiar face out of a crowd, even after many years. Something distinguishes every face — it’s actually surprising there aren’t more look-alikes. The point is it’s often difficult to distinguish just what that difference is. Hirschfeld knew that his job was to find that elusive something — simply, directly. The system of caricature is to take prominent, unique characteristics and emphasize them. There’s a valuable tip for fine artists that lies in this process. Artists ought to look at their subject matter and attempt to extract a greater truth from what is seen. Beauty more beautiful, colour more colourful, gesture more gestural, elegance more elegant, solidity more solid, drama more dramatic. A wonky building can be made more wonky, a struggling tree more overwhelmed with struggle, a sad-faced person more excruciatingly sad.
Marquee lights across Broadway dimmed in Hirschfeld’s memory after word spread that he had died in his sleep. Shortly afterward, the Martin Beck Theatre on 45th Street was renamed the Al Hirschfeld Theatre. You can see his caricature of himself in lights on the marquee.
PS: “Life isn’t a science. We make it up as we go.” (Al Hirschfeld, 1903-2003)
Esoterica: When his daughter Nina was born in 1945 he secretly wove her name into a few drawings as a celebration of her birth. After a while the public demanded that he keep it up, and he did. Many drawings have “Nina” buried in a curl of hair, the fold of a dress, the crook of an arm. Al Hirschfeld discovered it, and you can profit by it if you choose — the public eats up insider personality indulgences.
by Hank Tilbury, Kansas City, KS, USA
Aside from his well-known caricatures, Al Hirschfeld produced a series of beautiful, realistic watercolours during his travels around the world in the 1930s. These are shown in a documentary produced a few years ago by PBS here in the US. Also in the program was some information about Hirschfeld’s father, an interesting and creative man who, among other things, coined the now-common term “senior citizen”!
by Laura Brodian Freas
My husband, Kelly Freas, is likewise a brilliant caricaturist. We have always been big Hirschfeld fans. I’m pleased to report that Kelly was recently involved in a project on which the cover art was done by Hirschfeld, one of his last pieces.
(RG note) While I was in art school Kelly Freas was one of my heroes. He still is. He is best known for his science fiction and fantasy illustrations, as well as Mad Magazine work. It was Kelly who was responsible for many of the Alfred E Newman illustrations. “What, me worry?”
Art of caricature
by Jim Pallas, Detroit, MI, USA
Pollsters were surprised to find that people can identify a famous face more readily from a caricature than from a photo. Also, I often devoted at least one day of my college drawing classes to caricatures. After explaining the difference between commercial caricatures — you know — those done at fairs and such where the artist is kind to the subject (if they want to get paid!) as opposed to real caricature where the goal is to make fun of or “needle” the subject. I would ask for volunteers to sit in the “hot seat” and let the rest of the class try to “get” them. My students and I were always surprised to find that many of them had a knack for it.
(RG note) As a matter of fact some celebrities need to be their caricatures in order to be noticed — as it is the caricature that the public comes to know. Jack Benny, who was caricatured often, complained that he was frequently overlooked in restaurants — or mistaken for someone else.
by Ken Berry
Al Hirschfeld perfected his art of capturing Broadway actors and situations by sketching them in his pocket with a short stubby pencil and, presumably, a rather tiny sketchbook, as he didn’t want to upset other patrons by using a flashlight. Also, with regard to the Ninas in the drawings, one will often find a little number, like 3 or 5 by his signature at the bottom, the number indicating the number of Ninas hidden in the drawing.
Hirschfeld the fine artist
by Doran William Cannon, California, USA
We lost a national treasure when Al Hirschfeld died. There can never be another so good. He worked daily ’til the day he died. Honoring him, Robert, as an artiste rather than a mere illustrator is his just dessert. He gave New York City, not just Broadway, its best image. I lived 11 years in Manhattan, five of those years with the wall of my bedroom against the stage-house of the Imperial Theatre, where I could faintly hear Zero Mostel bellowing in Fiddler on the Roof. The photographic image of Zero is amplified to the nth degree by A.H’s caricature. Hmmmm . . .if what Rodin said about discovering the subject within the rock as he went, Hirschfeld could be described as a sculptor who used line to pull out the sketch — then the final. And the negative space between the lines spoke volumes and volumes. Speaking of line, what artist of line was ever able to find more depth and volume than Hirschfeld. He was an illustrator and a caricaturist, but first and foremost, an artist.
Fine art school questions
by Susan Turner, Portland, Oregon, USA
As an artist and parent, I know the importance of fine arts in schools, and in the U.S. the sad lack thereof. In my own way, teaching in a volunteer school arts history program for nearly ten years and now teaching in after school art classes, I see the need first hand and the benefit to the children who are so hungry for it. However, I still see the traditional school program shut out the arts from its curriculum more and more each year. I would be very interested in more information about the fine arts curriculum in the school you mention. How did the parents approach the schools? What classes are being offered? How often? To which grades? Do the teachers have teaching degrees or art degrees or are they professional artists?
(Bill Roche, parent, note) The program was initiated by a small group of parents. Our group held public meetings to generate interest and developed a proposal for the school board. Once the concept was adopted, the development of the program was handed over to a particular school and our Fine Arts Program began. It is offered to grades 1 – 7 and the teachers are all professional teachers with strong backgrounds in the arts. Students spend approximately 40% of their time studying fine arts — drama, visual arts, dance and music. The core subjects (e.g. math, language arts, etc.) are condensed into the remainder of the school days and when possible the arts are integrated into these subject areas. All teachers have homeroom classes (core subjects are covered by homeroom teachers) and are specialists in one of the arts. Classes go to their specialty teachers for each of the four art subjects. My wife, Diane, was the Vice Chair of the initiating group and would be able to address any questions regarding the proposal process.
From a teacher’s point of view
by Catherine Hanna
The Fine Art’s Program is one of three tracks that operate within our school. As such we face some challenges with funding, scheduling and achieving a true fine art environment. However, with the dedicated support of parents, staff and administration, we are now reaping the rewards of our collective efforts. The students rotate twice a week through four strands of fine arts, which include: drama, dance, visual arts and musical theatre. The teachers that are hired are training in their respective fields. We also integrate the strands into our regular school curriculum. The program was instituted six years ago. My present class has been in the program since it started. Witnessing their confidence, energy and talent in the various disciplines is evidence of the programs success. My students excel in artistic expression. They easily adapt to new situations and explore new concepts and ideas. Working with a group of like-minded students who are willing to take risks, challenge themselves and enjoy the outcomes is truly amazing. The active participation of parents enriches the program in many ways. One of the ways they bolster the program is by connecting us with various art experiences such as: spending three days at the Vancouver Youth Film Festival, interacting with seniors in our community, attending studios of accomplished artists and seeking out various performances or workshops. Our biggest goal is to go to New York next spring. With massive fundraising and hopefully some great connections, we plan to experience the arts in New York and create some opportunities to connect with other students in the New York school system. We would like to share our experiences with others and come back with some new ideas for our program.
I’m the drama specialist for grades five to seven, as well as the grade six teacher. My focus is to provide opportunities for the students to develop diverse dramatic skills and to use these skills to gain a deeper understanding of themselves. We know all strands of the arts provide an essential form of communication. Creating images, movement, or characters allows the students to explore and express their understanding of the world.
Adjust priorities now!
by Odette Nicholson
I was ‘the talented kid’ beginning at age 5 trained in music because visual media training was not available. At age 28 I acquired my BFA and have been painting for twenty years. Having two children in public schools with no visual art programming I volunteer to coordinate and lead art classes. I’ve held Artist in Residence year-long positions twice (schools provide free studio space, kids and teachers have access). I’ve seen trends in Art Education come and go, special programs begin and end, but one thing remains true and sad – the lack of Arts Curricula. Arts education is the best way of educating the whole person to be “well-rounded.” The system needs to adjust its priorities, now! We need to nurture the ‘art-mind’ of everyone to ensure our society fulfills its optimum potential.
by Marney Ward
One of the teachers, who taught my son grade seven in a French Immersion school, started a project called Collabart. He invites about 30 local artists to spend a day at his school working one-on-one with a grade seven student. They produce a collaborative piece of art, which is auctioned off a week later to raise money for special school projects, sometimes the arts, sometimes a trip to Quebec. The auction generates a lot of public interest, with quite competitive bidding, especially if the parents are separated and both want the painting, or if an “outsider” wants a good deal. The artist gets half the auctioned amount, a delicious lunch, a fun day with other artists, plus some exposure in the local media. The kids get to share a unique learning experience, as close to the old-fashioned apprentice as anything I can think of. Both art student and artist sign the shared painting.
by Susan Joseph
As a supplemental job I began teaching kids art at a summer camp last year in part as a way to send my kids to summer camp and to spend some time with my 7-year-olds. I never taught before and it was a wonderful experience. From there I was hired to teach art to the kids at religious school at our temple and have just been hired again for next year.
Not a nut
by Linda Sanford Wirt, Minneapolis, MN, USA
I have hundreds of paintings in my basement. Go figure. I can paint ’em but I’m not good at selling ’em. Sadly, I don’t have any “style” but who knows what may develop in time? I thought that someday I’d develop one, but after all these paintings I still don’t seem to have a style. I think it would drive me nuts to paint with the same style all of the time. Maybe this is consistent with the fact that when I was a teenager and took the occupational assessments they could not come up with an occupational recommendation for me. I was the only kid in the school with an “invalid” outcome. I’m not a nut. Although I have degrees, none of them are in Art. I appreciate the twice-weekly letters so much. I drink them!
I am planning a one-person show — my first in a certain gallery, which is new to the game. The gallery has asked for my “client list.” I feel I don’t want to give it to them as there are other dealers in this area who handle my work. What should I do?
(RG note) Your client list has been hard won and is your business. Ask the dealer to supply you with however many invitations you think you can personally use, and address and mail them yourself. Dealers are most often understanding about this standard procedure, and while they might love to scalp your customers, it is in itself an act of goodwill for you to send your personal or other gallery’s customers to any gallery.