The other Al Hirschfeld
There is another side of Al Hirschfeld, whose theatrical caricatures are receiving so much attention this year in honor of the decades of delight flowing from his drawing board. Meet Hirschfeld the easel painter, the sojourner in Bali. We asked drama critic John Beaufort, who has known the artist through many of his Broadway years, to bring this other Hirschfeld to The Home Forum.
For Al Hirschfeld, the road to Broadway began in Bali. If he hadn't gone there in 1931, I might be writing an appreciation of Hirschfeld the easel painter instead of Hirschfeld the superb caricaturist, a master of line drawing. Perhaps we might even not have met, since so much of my New York journalistic life has been concerned with the theater. As it is, I can scarcely imagine all those seasons of playgoing without the sight of the bearded, benign-looking artist and Dolly Haas, his enchanting actress wife, somewhere in the audience.
It was a signal day for the theater when Hirschfeld opted for Bali. By his own account, we have Bali to thank for the fact that, during more than half a century, he has been practicing and refining the bold yet delicate art of sophisticated linesmanship.
Hirschfeld prefers being called a ''characterist'' rather than a caricaturist. The designation may be immaterial. The line is not. His masterly comic portraiture has animated the drama pages of the New York Times for some 55 years and has appeared in numerous other publications. His works are in the collections of leading museums, including New York's Metropolitan and Whitney. In the world of Broadway, to be drawn (but not quartered) by Hirschfeld is in itself a status symbol. To theater folk and theater buffs, a Hirschfeld cartoon says it all.
Nor have Hirschfeld's dramatis personae been limited to the passing shows of playmaking. Beyond the world of make-believe, his global cast of characters has included politicians and potentates, wits and philosophers, dictators and democrats, crowned heads and head clowns. His witty likenesses combine portraiture, comment, and invention in a way that makes for instant recognition. Art critic John Russell has dubbed him ''a Fred Astaire of pen and ink.''
We New Yorkers are celebrating Hirschfeld's 80th year in various ways. There has been a comprehensive exhibition of Hirschfeld drawings at Gracie Mansion, the mayor's official residence. Early next year there will be a Hirschfeld show at the Museum of Broadcasting. Farther afield, the Harvard Theater Collection will mount an anniversary exhibition this fall, and Brandeis University is discussing one for the spring.
In case you are wondering about the role of Bali in all of this, here is what Hirschfeld told me concerning the adventure that changed his life. It began in Tahiti, where he had gone in search of the usual inspiration, creative stimulus, and local color. The actuality proved disillusioning. He found the ''natives'' playing Portuguese ukeleles and singing Hawaiian songs written by Irving Berlin in Tin Pan Alley. The island popularized by romantics from Paul Gauguin to Nordhoff and Hall (authors of ''Mutiny on the Bounty'') had gone with the wind. The only Gauguin reminder Hirschfeld encountered was an engraved legend over the door of an abandoned one-room schoolhouse. It read: ''2 X 2 EQUALS 4 (signed) P. Gauguin.''
At this low point, rescue came in the form of a letter from Hirschfeld's good friend Miguel Covarrubias, the celebrated caricaturist, then living in Bali. Covarrubias's enthusiasm for the Balinese scene prompted Hirschfeld to pack up his paints and catch the next ship for the Dutch East Indian (now Indonesian) island.
Covarrubias and his wife had left by the time Hirschfeld arrived in Den Pasar , southern Bali, so he rented the house in which they had been living. He also inherited Covarrubias's bicycle and domestic staff. Two dollars a week paid for a cook, the food she provided, and six houseboys who cleaned, laundered, shined shoes, and performed other domestic chores. Clearly an artist could live like a king.
For the next 11 months, Hirschfeld explored Den Pasar and environs on foot and on the trusty bike. He recorded his impressions in a series of limpid watercolors depicting the tropical scene and the everyday life of his Balinese neighbors. Then as now bewhiskered, he was known among the villagers as ''the bearded man.''
Hirschfeld discovered that Covarrubias had been right about the advantages of Bali in everything from climate and cooking to the performing arts. Evening diversions included singing, dancing, puppet shows, and other entertainments. Village routine was interrupted periodically by the arrival of cruise ships making an exotic port of call.
Elsewhere in these pages Hirschfeld describes the visit of a world-famous tourist who was nevertheless unknown to the Balinese - Charlie Chaplin. Hirschfeld's drawing of Chaplin a la Balinese was a foretaste of things to come. As noted above, Bali marked the turning point in Hirschfeld's career. In The World of Hirschfeld (1981) he described the transformation as follows:
''By the time I reached the village of Den Pasar I knew that my life would never again be the same. The Balinese sun seemed to bleach out all color, leaving everything in pure line. The people became line drawings walking around. I think it no accident that rich, lush painting flourishes in the fog of Europe, while graphic art - from Egypt across Persia to India and all the way to the Pacific islands - is influenced by the sun. At any rate, it was in Bali that my attraction blossomed into an enduring love affair with line. I am much more influenced by the drawings of Haranobu, Utamaro, and Hokusai than I am by the paintings of the West. . . .''
The other day, when I was visiting his studio, Hirschfeld said: ''I became, through Bali, interested in line. I'm still trying to figure out what makes it tick.''
This year's homage to Hirschfeld, the Broadway celebrity, is altogether right and fitting. But it seemed to me that some attention should also be paid to that other Hirschfeld. The lovely watercolors from the long-ago Bali sojourn indicate the easel painter Hirschfeld could have become. The Bali paintings are not merely a backward look. What remains today is their enduring freshness, their delicate yet luxuriant colors, their lyricism. They image the enchanted response of a young painter bent on capturing the mundane and picturesque elements of an exotic environment. They are part of the Hirschfeld treasure.