Get out your magnifying glasses, Nina-hunters; pen-and-ink artist Al Hirschfeld has collected into one volume more than 300 of his classic rendering of film and theatre personalities—and each one drawn since 1945 has his daughter’s name hidden somewhere in the scratches, loops or swirls. Hirschfeld sneaked his first “Nina” into a sketch of the musical Are You With It? on the day she was born; since then, the illustrator’s fans have turned hunting for his offspring’s name into what he calls “a national insanity.”
Aside from the questionable pleasures of rooting out obscure Ninas, there are a lot of good reasons to track down a copy of Hirschfeld: Art and Recollections from Eight Decades. First, there’s the sheer scope of the volume: Hirschfeld, 88, has been caricaturing actors and other artists for the New York Times since 1927, and leafing through his drawings is like taking a short pictorial course in theatre history. His 65 years on the aisle have afforded him a unique perspective on the development of American acting. As he writes in his brief but interesting preface (which follows a not-so-brief and somewhat gushy introduction by Alistair Cooke):
I have always loved to draw the explosive kind of actors: the one who never closed a door; they slammed it. They were bigger than life—Charlie Chaplin, Ray Bolger, Carol Channing, Zero Mostel, Katharine Hepburn. Modern actors, in contrast, are trying to reproduce life accurately, photographically. [They] portray reality smaller than life.
Theatricality today belongs to the streets, Hirschfeld concludes: “I don’t know how one could invent the costumes people are seen wearing on Forty-Second Street.”
But the artist’s most recent drawings, collected at the end of the book, belie his disenchantment with contemporary performers: Here we find Meryl Streep, Reggie Montgomery, Len Cariou and even a hipper-than-thou Eric Bogosian rubbing elbows with new depictions of Charlie Chaplin, Duke Ellington and the Beatles.
Perhaps of most interest to true Hirschfeld fans will by his earliest pictures—much more varied in style than his later—and his seldom-seen impressions of those other actors—politicians. Here Adolf Hitler poses before a Rockette-like line of Nazi soldiers (1933), Eisenhower is sworn into office (1953), Mao-Tse-tung paces the Great Wall of China (1971), and Ron and Nancy Reagan campaign vociferously for his reelection (1984).
No matter how mighty and grand his subject, though, Hirschfeld brings each down to earth with his ever-present “Nina.” Have you found the one on Bogosian yet? Clue: This book won’t waist your time.
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