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The Nation | AL HIRSCHFELD: 1903-2003

Artist Crossed the Line From Drawing to Characterization

January 21, 2003|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Al Hirschfeld, whose spare yet incisive drawings captured the essence and memorialized the stardom of hundreds of Broadway and Hollywood performers over an astonishing eight decades, died Monday. He was 99.

Hirschfeld, who had been in good health, died in his sleep of natural causes in his New York City home.

Margo Feiden, whose Margo Feiden Galleries in New York City has represented Hirschfeld since 1969, said the artist had worked all day Sunday, drawing a client in his studio.

"The world has lost its premier artist of line. Not only for our time but for any time," Feiden said. "He was not a cartoonist and not a caricaturist but a characterist. What he sought to do was go well beyond skin-deep."

The artist would have agreed with her.

"Caricature has always been looked upon as something inferior. Early caricaturists derived their humor from exaggerating anatomical defects," Hirschfeld told Mel Gussow for the 1999 book "Hirschfeld On Line."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday January 23, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 15 inches; 563 words Type of Material: Correction
Al Hirschfeld -- The obituary of artist Al Hirschfeld in Tuesday's Section A incorrectly stated that his drawings line the walls of Sardi's restaurant in New York City. They do not. In addition, Shubert Alley was misspelled as Schubert Alley.

"If somebody has a big nose, they'd make it bigger, which I don't think is witty. Big heads and little bodies -- I don't know what is so funny about that."

Feiden said one of Hirschfeld's "most wonderful drawings" was a sketch of Jimmy "The Schnoz" Durante without any nose. "He didn't exaggerate to get a likeness," she said. "He sought to go deeper than the anatomical features."

Playwright Arthur Miller once said: "People in a Hirschfeld drawing all share the one quality of energetic joy in life they wish they had in reality. Looking at a Hirschfeld drawing of yourself is the best thing for tired blood. He makes us all seem like a purposeful, even merry band of vagabonds whose worst features he has redeemed."

Lauren Bacall, an actress drawn frequently by the artist, has called Hirschfeld a "national treasure." His fellow New Yorkers designated him a "living landmark." His wife of six years, Louise Kerz Hirschfeld, a former museum curator, called him "the logo of the American theater."

Few of Hirschfeld's subjects disliked the artist's whimsical portraits with the signature flowing lines, spiky cross-hatching and camouflaged mentions of the name of his daughter, Nina. But when Allen Funt of television's "Candid Camera" complained that Hirschfeld had made him look like a monkey, the artist rejoined, "God's work."

Hirschfeld produced more than 7,000 drawings, many of which have appeared regularly in the New York Times since Jan. 28, 1928, the New Yorker magazine since 1993 and in a plethora of books over 70 years -- among them "Show Business Is No Business," "Hirschfeld on Hirschfeld," "The World of Hirschfeld," "The American Theater as Seen by Hirschfeld," "Hirschfeld's New York" and "Hirschfeld's Hollywood."

The nonagenarian's art has been exhibited in galleries from Paris to Los Angeles, including the National Portrait Gallery and the Library of Congress in Washington, New York's Museum of Modern Art and Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills.

Hirschfeld's drawings have graced two books of postage stamps, one in 1991 on comedians including Jack Benny and Laurel & Hardy, and another in 1994 on such silent film stars as Rudolph Valentino and Buster Keaton. Framed Hirschfeld portraits line the walls of Sardi's, the Broadway restaurant off Schubert Alley where Hirschfeld liked to dine with actors after the theater.

A documentary film about the legendary artist, "The Line King" by Susan W. Dryfoos, was nominated for an Academy Award in 1997 and later adapted by PBS for telecast on its "American Masters" series. Broadway awarded Hirschfeld a special Tony for theater caricature in 1974.

Although Hirschfeld is revered as the iconic chronicler of Broadway, he actually began his career in the movie business in New York and even had an influence on some modern filmmakers. By the time he published his first theatrical drawing in 1926, he had already worked in publicity and advertising for Goldwyn, Selznick, Universal, Pathe, Fox, First National and Warner Bros.

Those long-forgotten beginnings were revisited last year, with the release of the artist's critically praised "Hirschfeld's Hollywood," co-published by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, which exhibited many of the works covered in the book. It includes more than 100 posters, billboards, murals, paintings and drawings focused completely on Hollywood. Still attuned to the modern motion picture community, although he rarely went to the movies, he drew nominees for the 2001 Academy Awards for the New York Times.

When Disney was making the animated feature "Aladdin" in 1992, Eric Goldberg, who supervised animation of the Genie, told the Los Angeles Times that he had sought inspiration from Hirschfeld's drawings. "I look on Hirschfeld's work as a pinnacle of boiling a subject down to its essence, so that you get a clear, defined statement of a personality."

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