© The Al Hirschfeld Foundation. All rights reserved.

Features / Illustration

The Line King: A profile of Al Hirschfeld, on the prolific characterist’s 115th birthday


Al Hirschfeld

Sitting in an old barber’s chair, on the fourth floor studio of his townhouse on East 95th Street, New York, caricaturist Al Hirschfeld does with a quill and ink what a barber would do with scissors and a comb. Leaning over a drafting table, he first looks over his sketches; pages cluttered with frantic-looking marks. On a new piece of paper, he begins to draw. Streamlining chaos into clarity, he snips away the inessential, leaving just a few lines. The result? Marilyn Monroe. Charlie Chaplin. Ella Fitzgerald. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Orson Welles. Whoopi Goldberg. Luciano Pavarotti. Nat King Cole. Barbra Streisand. Sometimes all at once. With just a quill and some black ink, Al Hirschfeld brought to life some of entertainment’s most colourful characters.

© The Al Hirschfeld Foundation. All rights reserved.

Over a career that lasted eight decades, Hirschfeld is said to have chronicled countless 20th century Broadway and Hollywood personalities for print and press. In 1956, he was the first to draw a caricature of Elvis Presley; to be “Hirschfelded” was a sign that you’d made it. His work has covered Playbill programs, film posters and advertisements, magazines like TIME and Life, newspapers (most notably The New York Times), albums for Aerosmith, and postage stamps for the US Postal Service. Almost every museum in the world has a Hirschfeld – such is the American artist’s ubiquity. He was even made the subject of his own Academy Award-nominated documentary film, ‘The Line King’. In 2003, Hirschfeld passed away, just a few months short of his 100th birthday. He worked for the likes of The New York Times right up until the day of his death. But he left an unparalleled legacy; an ineradicable mark on American theatre history, illustration and cartooning. So today, on what would have been Hirschfeld’s 115th birthday, we look back at the life and work of the affectionately dubbed, ‘Line King.’

Making his debut in 1928, the drama pages of The New York Times became Hirschfeld’s very own stage. Having worked for the paper for over 70 years, he became a regular figure at opening nights, and given the freedom to capture what caught his eye on Broadway. But to do so, Hirschfeld had to learn to draw in the dark. “It’s not that difficult, actually,” he told Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, Art Spiegelman in a 2001 episode of Theater Talk, “Think of stenographers and computer experts who don’t look at the keys at all – or pianists, or violinists.” Using a kind of shorthand, Hirschfeld would sketch in his pocket during the performance, outlining gestures or expressions. “They’re kind of hieroglyphics that I’ve learned to read,” he explained. These marks would later be decoded into a drawing back at his desk. Elevated in his barber’s chair, he described to Spiegelman something of this process: “I take a blank piece of paper and kind of invent a line.” Drawing first in pencil, the quill and ink would follow, before “I erase, and erase, and erase until I get it down to its absolute minimum.” As quoted in The Hirschfeld Century: "I am down to a pencil, a pen, and a bottle of ink,” said Hirschfeld, “I hope one day to eliminate the pencil.”

© The Al Hirschfeld Foundation. All rights reserved.

“Theatre totally fascinated and consumed him,” his widow, Louise told The New Yorker in 2003. But it was cinema that first offered Hirschfeld his big break. Born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1903, Hirschfeld’s family moved to New York in 1914, so that he could attend the National Academy of Design. It was here that he said he learned “things that can be taught: anatomy and perspective” – all rules he would later go on to break. Starting out in the publicity departments of film studios, he created promotional drawings at Goldwyn Pictures in 1920 before becoming an art director for David Selznick Pictures at just 18 years old; and later moving to Warner Brothers. Although initially trained as a sculptor, Hirschfeld didn’t pursue it as a profession, resolving that sculpture “was just a drawing you could trip over in the dark.” “You can’t plan a career”, he told Spiegelman in Theater Talk. But you don’t have to look hard to see its influence in the shapely forms of his work.

Artist Paul Klee made famous the idea that “a line is a dot that went for a walk”. But to apply this to Hirschfeld’s work feels a little tame. Because the dots making up Hirschfeld’s lines aren’t simply walking, they’re on rollerskates. These are the kinds of silhouettes typical of high-adrenaline rides; each drawing showcasing a range of visual dynamics. Dramatic highs, dips and drops define arms or the rounds of backs. Lines loop-de-loop to form legs and limbs. With a truly Orwellian economy of lines, Liza Minelli’s frame is depicted in just one. Actor John Lithgow’s crosses his arms with two that overlap at the elbow. The feet and flares of The Beatles coalesce almost completely as they cross Abbey Road in Hirschfeld’s 1999 drawing of the Fab Four. Hirschfeld literally drew the line between realism and believability; its graphic quality flirts with abstraction, while retaining identifiable characteristics.

© The Al Hirschfeld Foundation. All rights reserved.

“The subject that motivates and inspires me, is people,” writes Hirschfeld in his book, Art and Recollections. Traditionally, we might think of caricature as a pretty cruel art form. The idea that a drawing should pinpoint and exaggerate a prominent feature or flaw, to paint an unflattering picture. “Caricature,” Hirschfeld concedes, “implies a critique or a criticism. So I don’t refer to my drawings as caricatures. I prefer to think of them as character drawings, and would feel more comfortable being classified as [a] ‘characterist’ if there is such a word or school.” It was never Hirschfeld’s intention to destroy a play or actor; he used drawing to express personality, not as a vehicle for criticism. “He’ll make you interesting, but never beautiful,” remarked American theatre producer Joseph Papp. Anatomy and academia were of no interest to Hirschfeld. What he chose to concern himself with was not realism – but recognition. “After watching people for 90 years,” he said in The Line King, “You pick up a few things.”

A small signature would flank each of Hirschfeld’s drawings. But it was almost unnecessary because his style was so calligraphic – you knew they were his. There are, of course, hallmarks: “Somebody’s eyes might be like fried eggs, mouths can be like peepholes or caverns…hair might be Brillo or rope or string or thread.” But in 1945, Hirschfeld would unassumingly add yet another trademark – ‘Nina.’ Often found in the creases of clothing or the curls of a hairdo, Hirschfeld began hiding his newly-born daughter’s name in his drawings. Initially intended to entertain a close circle of friends, the hunt for ‘Nina’s’ quickly became some kind of national pastime, with Hirschfeld adding a number after his signature, signifying how many ‘Nina’s’ a drawing contained. These drawings even came to be used by the US army to train military bomber pilots to spot targets – an idea Hirschfeld himself found repulsive, calling it “sheer insanity.”

© The Al Hirschfeld Foundation. All rights reserved.

In a single image, Hirschfeld fused the fluid with the frenetic. “[Hirschfeld] can do in one drawing what it takes 24 frames to do in animation,” David Leopold, archivist and creative director of the Al Hirschfeld Foundation told Fast Co. Design in 2013. A drawing of Leonard Bernstein depicts the composer in a Futurist-like commotion, with no less than 11 hands switching between a phone, conducting, writing and playing the piano. Drawings of actors Danny Kaye, Ruby Keeler and Tommy Tune quiver and shake; feet shuffling, arms swaying, hands gesticulating. If there were any indication of Hirschfeld’s untapped potential as an animator, this is it. But while he never directly turned his hand to animation, Hirschfeld’s influence could be felt far and wide in the industry.

When Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves opened in 1937 to critical acclaim, Hirschfeld did not join in on the applause. Instead, writing an unsparing review in The New York Times, he called out the film as a ‘virus of literalness’, and Snow White herself an awkward ‘anatomic automation.’ He did, however see merit in the dwarves’ much more expressive character design. In critiquing Disney’s inability to cohesively unite the dwarves’ stylised qualities with the realistically-rendered human characters, Hirschfeld inadvertently highlights the secrets of his own success. Disney, he says, ought not to forget about the power and “…tremendous magic of well-directed lines”.

© The Al Hirschfeld Foundation. All rights reserved.
© The Al Hirschfeld Foundation. All rights reserved.

This wouldn’t be the last time Hirschfeld and Disney would cross paths. And if the company did sit up and notice, it would take them over fifty years to do so. Mostly in thanks to animator (and longtime Hirschfeld admirer) Eric Goldberg, elements of Hirschfeld DNA can be found in the Genie from Disney’s Aladdin. Designed by Goldberg and heavily inspired by Hirschfeld, the sweeping and shapely character design allowed the shape-shifting Genie, famously voiced by Robin Williams, to transform into a multitude of personas throughout the film – many of whom were celebrities who had already been Hirschfelded. Hirschfeld would later go on to have a more direct hand in the work for a sequence in Disney’s Fantasia 2000. Acting as an artistic consultant, the film features an entire segment inspired by his style, set to the booming soundtrack of composer George Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’.

Hirschfeld lived through the rise of celebrity culture in America; decades of stage and screen stars have been immortalised on his drawing board and in the pages of newspapers. And so, this is what the Hirschfeld canon came to be: a 20th century study of people and plays, personalties and performances. But what makes Hirschfeld relevant today? Why look back? For David Leopold, it’s simple. “It’s the drawing,” he tells It’s Nice That. Today, Hirschfeld’s breathtaking use of line transcends subject matter; and his body of work is increasingly looked upon for its aesthetic, rather than documentary, value. “Hirschfeld was not the best at what he did; he was the only one who did what he did. It’s hard to pinpoint, or put into words something that is so visually potent. But there is something about the line that is very reflective of who Hirschfeld was. He was a normal person who happened to be a genius.” Happy Birthday, Al.

© The Al Hirschfeld Foundation. All rights reserved.