Now and Then

By John Hertz: (reprinted from No Direction Home 17): A place where I sometimes go to dance has a print of Al Hirschfeld’s 1989 caricature of Sammy Davis, Jr. (1925-1990). Friday the 21st, first day of summer, was Hirschfeld’s birthday (1903-2003).

They had a few things in common. They each had a wide-ranging and possibly unique genius easier to recognize the work of than to define. They were my co-religionists (for a while Davis used to say “Not only am I short, and black, and blind in one eye, and Jewish, and married to a white woman, but I voted for Nixon!”). Their blood type was SHOW BUSINESS. Davis, though he had been performing since he was seven, rose to fame doing impressions, a gift perhaps like Hirschfeld’s caricatures.

Once Davis, in a multiple joke, as a guest on Charlie’s Angels (television 1976-1981; Season 2 Episode 12, 7 Dec 77, “The Kidnap Caper”) played both himself and a Davis impersonator Herbert Brubaker III; Brubaker beat up a candy machine that wouldn’t deliver (L. Bricusse & A. Newley’s 1972 song “The Candy Man” was a Davis hit – though Davis never liked it); Davis’ third wife Altovise, playing herself, said to Davis “Oh, take it easy, babe, it’s not your fault that he looks like you.”

Hirschfeld would have preferred “characterist”

if there were such a word or school. All I know for certain is that the “capturing of a likeness” is of secondary importance to me and serves merely as stimulant or catalyst…. My primary interest is in producing a drawing capable of surviving the obvious fun of recognition or news value. The drawing – or lack of it – is all that matters.

….the subject which turns me on is people…. anywhere in the world, there they are: stimulating, challenging people [p. 11]…. The problem I have created for myself is to translate a specific person or object in legible symbols so that the reader, when confronted with my arrangement of lines, will recognize their meaning as clearly as he would the letter A [p. 13].

Communication in caricature must tell its story in abstract line. The limitation of the medium is an integral part of its message — the purity of line, apart from the likeness, is its own message. Marshall McLuhan’s succinct philosophy “the medium is the message” is an apt description of caricature [p. 14] …. I am much more influenced by the drawings of Harunobu [1774-1770], Utamaro [1753-1806], and Hokusai [1760-1849] than I am by the painters of the West [p. 17]…. Pure stylization without content tends to be arid and lifeless [p. 24].

My work has been mostly confined to the theater [p. 25]…. The aim is to re-create the performed character and not re-interpret its “character” by ridicule or aggressive insult…. A drawing of an actor playing a character is a visual conviction of that character [p. 30].

It seems that everyone knows I … hide my daughter’s name, NINA, in … my drawings – in folds of sleeves, tousled hairdos, eyebrows, wrinkles, backgrounds, shoelaces – anywhere to make it difficult, but not too difficult, to find [p. 31].

Hirschfeld’s World (1981)

Ten thousand of his pictures were used in magazines, newspapers, on billboards, murals, program books, phonograph albums; millions saw them. Luckily there are collections. I recommend

By the 1930s his was the line that roared (D. Leopold ed., The Hirschfeld Century p. 41, 2015); he kept working to the end. He was given the National Medal of Arts in 2002.

He addressed the audiences of the people shown. What about us?

In Art and recollections, p. 291, is a 1991 image of Duke Ellington — made a decade and a half after his death (1899-1974). Some today will have seen him perform live. More can see him now by video recording. You may have seen still photographs. You may have heard him by audio recording with no idea what he looked like. You may never have heard of him. What does the image itself say?

Compare the 1943 image “What’s the Matter with New York?” at p. 44 of Hirschfeld’s New York. Does it have something for you if you don’t recognize Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957), Fiorello La Guardia (1882-1947), Robert Moses (1888-1981), or if, even though the label in the book gives their names, you don’t know who they were?

Compare the image of Betsy Palmer in The Eccentricities of a Nightengale at p. 97 of Hirschfeld by Hirschfeld. This collection doesn’t give the date (1976); doesn’t say Eccentricities is a play by Tennessee Williams (1911-1983), or that he cast Palmer (1926-2015) as Alma Winemiller whom she is portraying; or a lot of other things helpful to know. Is the image worth your while? Why, do you suppose?

May I bring to mind a similarity to what science fiction writers do – and illustrators? With a few lines they suggest a world, inhabitants, situations, events. Hirschfeld did not, and for many reasons s-f cannot, give all the details: only those that tell.

In theater generally, in written and graphic fiction often, things are for aesthetic effect larger than life; when they are not, that itself creates an aesthetic effect. In s-f writers and illustrators are not supported by audience familiarity with unstated details, which must be suggested too.

Great art set in the mainstream of its day somehow reaches across culture – I include time – giving so well the details that tell we can infer the rest. Hirschfeld was and is excellent; now he also, for us, is instructive.