Al Hirschfeld on Hollywood.

"Who's Al Horsechild?" you say. It's "Hirsch-feld", and you ought to know his work if you're been alive more than five years and are not blind. If you don't know who Al Hirschfeld is, the first thing you need to do is punch yourself in the groin for being a clueless jerk... or blind. Actually, if you're blind, don't punch yourself, because your life is hard enough. Just try to find someone who doesn't know who Al Hirschfeld is and punch THEM in random locations until one of their shouts of pain sounds like "Ow! My groin!" Well done, blindey.

Here is a self-portrait by Hirschfeld. He made a name for himself doing these simple caricatures of (mostly) celebrities, characterized by swoopy ink lines and a very minimalist sensibility. Mostly, I respect him for two things: A) Being really good at caricature and B) having a style that you could recognize from the moon with your space helmet full of jam. I know, I know. "He never did a drawing big enough to be visible from orbit, let alone the moon." How bout this? Shut up.

Caricature is pretty hard. You have to identify what defines a particular face and exaggerate those features while omitting others, all without letting your distortions make the subject unrecognizable. Caricature is a pretty complex mental process. Almost all drawing relies upon the aforementioned discipline of judging and editing what you're seeing, but caricature demands a LOT of mental editing on the fly. Do it right and people see things in your drawing that they recognize, but never knew were in the face of the subject. "Oh yeah, I never noticed how feathery Hirschfeld's eyebrows were before!" Stuff like that.

You may have seen Hirschfeld's drawings on a number of TV guide covers, Johnny Carson's title cards and lots of other places from the forties through the seventies. One Simpson's episode even had a drawing of Krusty the Clown done in a Hirschfeld-esque style. I don't know if they actually got Al himself to do it (he was alive until 2003) or if it was a staff artist doing an imitation, but it was dead-on. I think the episode was "Krusty gets Kancelled".

In 1949, Hirschfeld did a series of drawings for Holiday magazine in which he made fun of Hollywood's various stereotypes. Low hanging fruit, I know. But when your magazine had Hirschfeld doing some drawings for an issue, incisive commentary just isn't important. Just give him an easy topic and let him work. Hirschfeld was sort of the "cartoonist laureate" of golden-era hollywood. If you wanted a funny drawing of some actor, Hirschfeld was the one you went to.

Anyway, here are the nine drawings, plus their captions. Please forgive the light photoshopping. Some of the captions were positioned in inconvenient locations, relative to their corresponding drawings, and I paired them up to make them sit better on the page. These are just thumbnails, since they can only be appreciated by clicking through to the larger version. Enjoy.

By contrast, here's what happens when a mortal tries to do a caricature. It's a drawing of Bo and Luke Duke as done by me a few years ago for a "drawing of the week" blog my friend had. I hate the Dukes of Hazzard and everything to do with the redneck south. I think my drawing benefitted from that hatred, as well as the fact that I was in a hurry because I felt that any time spent on the Dukes was a waste of time. Enjoy the contrast between Hirschfeld - an elegant master - and myself  - a rushed, angry oaf.


Craig F. said...

I love Hirschfeld, but I think guys like Jack Davis and George Woodbridge from MAD Magazine really hit home for me.

When I was a kid, I got a bunch of those MAD paperbacks from the 1960s and I pored over those things. The illustrations just kicked ass. Parodies of movies I'd never even heard of before made complete sense to me thanks to the great writing and incredible illustration.

David Silverman said...

Hey, many thanks, I'm glad you thought I got the Krusty a la Hirschfeld right. I used the Jerry Lewis (natch!) as a point of departure. Yessir, Al was the very very best, one of my influences.

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