What made the 1900s The Hirschfeld Century? We sat down this week with Creative Director of The Al Hirschfeld Foundation David Leopold to get the inside scoop. In addition to being Hirschfeld’s close personal friend and archivist, Leopold curated New-York Historical’s upcoming show The Hirschfeld Century: The Art of Al Hirschfeld opening May 22. Our multimedia exhibition features over 100 original Hirschfeld drawings and shares its name with Leopold’s groundbreaking book on the artist. His text will be on sale exclusively at our Museum Store starting next Friday. So don’t miss out! Come learn about the artist whose iconic style defined New York popular culture during the 20th century.
What first drew you to Hirschfeld?
When I was a kid, my parents introduced me to counting Ninas. Every Sunday, I fought with my five siblings for the Hirschfeld drawing in The New York Times—I wanted to count the Ninas first! I grew up in the small town of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and Hirschfeld’s cartoons were my gateway to an entirely new world. They introduced me to the cultural mecca of New York and its premier theater and dance institution: Broadway.
While researching one of Hirschfeld’s contemporaries, I first reached out to him. We eventually met, and I was so flattered because I hit it off with the legendary Al Hirschfeld. Only later did I find out that he hit it off with everyone. I was asked to organize an archive of his work. He was 86 at the time, so I assumed the project would last for two or three years, tops. It continued for 13 years.
What’s your favorite Hirschfeld drawing?
One of my absolute favorites in the show is a mixed media work of the Marx Brothers, probably created to promote their first MGM film, A Night at the Opera. Against a background of collaged sheet music is a portrait of the Marx Brothers: Harpo’s hair is made from cotton balls, Chico’s hair from Brillo pads, and Groucho’s moustache from a black piece of felt. His glasses are fastened from pipe cleaners. After this piece was published, MGM encouraged the Marx Brothers to conform to the cartoon. In their second film, A Day at the Races, Groucho’s hair was styled in two triangles just like Hirschfeld had drawn. Through his art, Hirschfeld helped define some of Hollywood’s most iconic characters.
Were you ever “Hirschfelded”?
Not directly. But I will say that in his later crowd scenes, there are a few more pony-tailed men than before I knew him. I like to think it was his sly way of including me in a drawing. I have the dubious distinction of having never been drawn or photographed by any of the artists that I’ve worked with.
Hirschfeld had a long and prolific career in an extremely tough industry. How did he evolve as an artist to stay relevant?
Above all, Hirschfeld caught the wave at the right moment and was a genius in his medium. In the 1920s and 1930s, caricature was the art form every newspaper used and although Hirschfeld came late to the game, by the end of the 1930s, he was literally the whole field.
Another reason Hirschfeld triumphed for so many decades was his ability to live in the present. He didn’t go to another revival of Showboat and say this is not as good as ’46, ’32, or ’27. He only considered the current production. I know that seems like such a banal phrase, but Hirschfeld was not a person who thought about the past in a traditional way. While many people constantly look back, he was looking ahead. In his future, there was always someone new to draw.
Even people who didn’t know anything about Hirschfeld’s iconic subjects would stop to look at his drawings because they were compelling. He had a sense of humor and a great gift of insight. Hirschfeld was also the ideal audience member. When the lights went down and the curtain went up, there was no better person for a performer to have in the audience than Hirschfeld. Not because he was uncritical, but because he enjoyed performances so much. It was this unadulterated enthusiasm and joy that he translated into ink.
The fact is that Hirschfeld’s work was seen everywhere. It was ubiquitous in ways that few things ever were and few things ever will be. He was also very democratic about his drawings. He designed for newspapers, film studios, and Broadway shows so everybody owned a piece of visual culture that he created.
How does Hirschfeld’s art tell the New York Story?
When Frank Rich arrived in New York, he expected everyone to look like a Hirschfeld drawing. And that’s true of a lot of people. Hirschfeld dominated the world of New York popular culture so much so that his drawings came to represent the city wherever they were seen. Particularly with his connection to Broadway—when you were talking Broadway, you were talking Hirschfeld and vice versa. Almost every New York performance was heralded by a Hirschfeld drawing. It was the first accolade a performer received because his drawings were published before the shows opened. He wasn’t picking winners and losers. He wasn’t saying this was a hit or a flop. He was reporting what he saw and sharing it with his audience. At first that audience was New Yorkers. But over time, his drawings were seen around the world. By the 1950s, Hirschfeld monopolized Broadway. Broadway had come to represent New York and New York was seen as the paragon of American culture. So Hirschfeld’s drawings came to represent the United States to a global audience.