It’s strange writing about Al Hirschfeld, because I know most of my blog readers aren’t cartoonists, or particularly into cartoons as an art form. So how do I explain that the single person in the world who knew the most about how to draw someone’s character with lines on paper has died?
Listen: the more you do an art form, the less magic it seems. My reading of comics and cartooning is nowadays much more in-depth than it was when I was a kid, but I’ll never recapture the wonder again; just how completely magical the comics are, the miracle of how line on paper forms meaning. Because I can do it myself – not as well as the cartoonists I admire, but I can do it – and I know how it’s done. There’s a technique to it. It’s not magic.
Well, let me tell you: Al Hirschfeld is fucking magic. I look at his stuff and go “wow! How the hell does he do that? How does he get the essence of a person down so perfectly with linework that has next-to-no literal resemblance to the person he’s drawing? How does he know the exactly perfect place each line goes?”
Mark Evanier gets it right:
…he nurtured and cultivated the most amazing, functional line in the time-honored craft of Caricature. Its very simplicity maddened those who tried to imitate him. He always knew precisely how to lay it down, and how to contour and bold it just so, the better to denote not only the look of his subject but some perceptive, vital quirk of personality or posture. That he could see this in people — even strangers, up there on stage or screen — was a function of the man, himself. Others could and did draw like him, but they could only draw what they saw, and Hirschfeld saw more than any of them.
Al Hirschfeld passed away today, at the age of 99, never having retired (or wanted to). I don’t feel the slightest bit bad for him; he had a long life, which he seemed to enjoy, and left thousands of wonderful drawings behind.
I don’t feel bad for him – I feel bad for me. And you. Because the master of the perfectly graceful line has put down his pen, and there will be no new Hirschfeld drawings for us to enjoy.