This week’s post is by returning guest blogger, Chennie Huang. By day, she’s a communications associate here at N-YHS. By night, she’s a graduate student studying art history at CUNY, concentrating in European and Asian art. This week, she explores the artists who inspired legendary cartoonist, Al Hirschfeld.
Al Hirscheld’s artistic career as a caricaturist spanned from the 1920s until the 1990s. Over these decades, he had developed a personal style that has been deemed unique to the artist. No matter if you were an avid reader of The New Yorker and a fan of Broadway shows, Hirscheld’s cartoons were ubiquitous and came to represent the city’s popular culture, itself. Although his work is easily identifiable, his sources of inspirations are less obvious. In this post, I explore some of the different artists that influenced Hirschfeld throughout his illustrious career.
Currently on view at N-YHS through October 12 is a retrospective exhibition called The Hirschfeld Century: The Art of Al Hirschfeld. It offers visitors an experience of Hirscheld’s lifetime worth of artistic achievements. Starting in the 1920s, Hirschfeld had already begun making work for film publicity, such as Laurel and Hardy, 1928 made with ink, watercolor, collage wallpaper samples, and photographs, this mixed media piece not only shows Hirscheld’s mastery of his medium, but it is indicative of his early influence in Mexican art. Though different in content, Laurel and Hardy can be read as inspiration by the same vibrant colors as if murals by Diego Rivera and Jorge González Camarena. In an interview with exhibition curator and creative director of The Al Hirschfeld Foundation, David Leopold, he tells us that Mexican artists were among Hirschfeld’s earliest sources of inspiration.
In the 1940s, Hirscheld’s caricature style began to show figures in dynamic poses, as the ones of Charlie Chaplin, ‘A Man with Both Feet in the Clouds,’ 1942, made simply with using ink on board. Though the work is deceptively simple, its composition shows a great deal of drama and movement. At the time, Hirschfeld was looking to Chinese calligraphy and became fascinated by the elegant brush strokes of black ink brush on paper that expressed not only of the personality of the artist but also the mood of the artist’s message. Inspired by its simplicity and motion, he went on to make several portraits mimicking that style. For example, in the Charlie Chaplin work, the figure is accentuated by a black smoky cloud as if sketched using a Chinese ink brush. The entire formation fades from dark to light conveying a sense of movement and gradation. Another example is the artist’s self-portrait done in the 1985. The facial express with its arching dark brows and the single line depicting the artist’s shoulders and arms is a good example. To finish the work, Hirschfeld chose to make his own signature in a square and lined shape, as if imitating the seal often seen in classic Chinese landscape and figure paintings.
As curator David Leopold explained in the same interview, “Hirschfeld was a classic American artist in the sense that he drew inspiration from a variety of sources, including many non-western artists.” In the latter case, the artist proved himself to be a true American master by taking inspirations from across different continents and transforming them into his own distinctive style. All the works referenced in this post are currently on display at New-York Historical, so come check them out!