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Stagestruck: The Character Drawings of Al Hirschfeld

From: The Missouri Review
Volume 36, Number 1, 2013
pp. 99-111 | 10.1353/mis.2013.0006

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Self-Portrait at 90, lithograph, The New Yorker, 1993 © Al Hirschfeld. Reproduced by arrangement with Hirschfeld’s exclusive representative, the Margo Feiden Galleries Ltd., New York. www.alhirschfeld.com

Al Hirschfeld was discovered not once but four times in his life. At four key moments his work received recognition that took his career to a new level, or he was given crucial advice that encouraged his growth as an artist.

The first time occurred when he was eleven. Charles Marx, a St. Louis artist who gave him drawing lessons and took him to art galleries, told his mother, Rebecca, that she needed to get him to New York so he didn’t waste his rare artistic gift. With only five dollars in the household account, she moved the family across the country, settling in upper Manhattan, where they lived in a crowded attic apartment. Rent was modest—four dollars a month—but still beyond the family’s means. Rebecca, the breadwinner, took a job as a saleswoman at the Wertheimer’s Department Store, while her husband stayed home with the children. With Rebecca’s determination, the family managed, and there were even rare treats. When he was fourteen, Hirschfeld saw his first musical, High Jinx, at the Julian Eltinge Theater.

Hirschfeld’s talent and energy got him hired at eighteen by the art director of Selznick Pictures. His primary job was advertising or pre-publicity used by the studios to sell their movies to distributors around the country. Lewis J. Selznick ran more ads than the larger production companies—sometimes as many as twenty pages in the Saturday Evening Post. The generous budget allowed Hirschfeld to experiment with styles—Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Modern. He also learned to make the film’s plot and genre appear exciting and interesting with a few key images.

In 1932, after Hirschfeld had been working for the pictures for more than a decade, his good friend, Mexican illustrator and caricaturist Miguel Covarrubias, insisted that he travel to Bali, extolling the virtues of its climate, food, people and art. He claimed there was something magical in Bali for an artist. Covarrubias, who was moving on, offered his house, a bicycle and a fully stocked kitchen. As soon as Hirschfeld arrived, he knew that his work would never be the same. The sun drained the landscape of its tropical colors, and everything around him seemed clearly defined by solid outlines. He recalled, “People became line drawings walking around.” It was in Bali that his attraction to drawing blossomed into an enduring love affair with line.

Perhaps the most significant turning point was the evening he went with publicist Richard Maney to the theater to see Deburau, starring Sacha Guitry. When the house lights dimmed and the curtain rose, Hirschfeld started scribbling on his playbill. During intermission Maney gazed over at his doodle and said, “Why don’t you put it on a clean piece of paper and I’ll sell it to the newspaper.” The following morning Maney sent the drawing to the Herald Tribune, which published it on the front page of the theater section. They asked Hirschfeld for more. Weeks later, Sam Zolotow of the New York Times commissioned him as well. Word of Hirschfeld’s talent spread, and soon he was being published in the Brooklyn Eagle, the Morning Telegraph and the World as well as the Tribune and Times.


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Pay as You Enter, poster, Warner Bros., 1928 from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Margaret Herrick Library © Al Hirschfeld. Reproduced by arrangement with Hirschfeld’s exclusive representative, the Margo Feiden Galleries Ltd., New York. www.alhirschfeld.com


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Babes on Broadway, poster, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1942 from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Margaret Herrick Library © Al Hirschfeld. Reproduced by arrangement with Hirschfeld’s exclusive representative, the Margo Feiden Galleries Ltd., New York. www.alhirschfeld.com

Born in 1903 in St. Louis, Missouri, to Isaac and Rebecca Hirschfeld, Albert was the youngest of three brothers. His oldest brother, Alexander, was called Al, while he was called Albert—a name he never liked. Hirschfeld liked to say that...



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