Friday, November 20, 2015

Al Hirschfeld: Kabuki Portraits

Albert ("Al") Hirschfeld (1903-2003) may not be a name familiar to many fine print or Japanese art collectors, unless they happen to be regular readers of the New York Times or theatre devotees.  Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Hirschfeld's family later moved to New York City, where Hirschfeld attended vocational school, took classes at the National Academy of Design, and played on a semi-pro baseball team with Lou Gehrig.  (In 1926, Hirschfeld also took a class in etching taught by Eugene Fitsch at the Arts Students League of New York.)  An apprenticeship requirement for graduation from his vocational school led to a gofer position at Goldwyn studios in 1920, which brought him the attention of Howard Dietz, Goldwyn's (and later M-G-M's) publicity and advertising director and a soon-to-be Broadway lyricist.  Hirschfeld began to receive regular assignments illustrating film advertisements in newspapers and magazines at Goldwyn and later Universal studios.  By 1923, Hirschfeld was the art director for publicity at Selznick Pictures, until it went bankrupt in 1924.  In October 1925 he left for Paris, where over the next six months or so he studied painting, drawing, and sculpture and traveled to such places as Spain, North Africa, and Sicily.


Al Hirschfeld (1955), photographed by Carl Van Vechten

Upon Hirschfeld's return to the United States, the famous Broadway press agent Richard Maney showed one of Hirschfeld's drawings to an editor at the New York Herald Tribune, which resulted in him getting commissions from that newspaper.  For the next twenty years, he would cover theatrical productions for the Herald Tribune, providing caricatures of the plays' stars that usually appeared on the Sunday before the play was to open.  Starting in 1928, Hirschfeld would also provide similar duties for The New York Times, an association that would ultimately last 75 years.

The King and I with Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner
in The New York Times (March 25, 1951) by Al Hirschfeld
(ink drawing)

Hirschfeld also regularly designed movie posters and publicity artwork for M-G-M studio releases from 1927 until 1952, and produced countless illustrations of movie and television actors, singers, politicians, and other celebrities for a variety of publications over the years ranging from Life Magazine to TV Guide.  Most Americans over the age of 40 have likely encountered Hirschfeld's work in some venue, even if they were unaware of the artist's name.  Hirschfeld's style is distinctive and immediately recognizable.  He is, simply, the greatest caricaturist of the Twentieth Century, perhaps of any century.

Another Fine Mess (1930) by Al Hirschfeld
(poster)

Lucille Ball on the cover of TV Guide (November 2, 1957) by Al Hirschfeld
(gouache)

As a kid, I grew up in the sixties and seventies with Hirschfeld's drawings on the front page of the New York Times' Sunday Arts and Leisure section and on album covers for certain Broadway musicals.  About a dozen years ago, while starting my second decade of collecting Japanese art, I learned that Hirschfeld had made a number of Kabuki and Noh theatre portraits, which were commercially issued as signed lithographs.  It is about this little known aspect of his career that I would like to highlight in this post.

 My Fair Lady cast album cover (1956) by Al Hirschfeld

One of the turning points in Hirschfeld's life was a trip to Bali in 1932.  As discussed in David Leopold's recent book "The Hirschfeld Century: Portrait of an Artist and His Age" (Alfred A. Knopf 2015), "[t]h Balinese sun seems to bleach out all color, leaving everything in pure line.  The people became line drawings walking around."  Hirschfeld thought it was "no accident that rich, lush painting flourishes in the fog of Europe, while graphic arts—from Egypt across Persia to India and all the way to the Pacific Island—is influenced by the sun . . . it was in Bali that my attraction to drawing blossomed into an enduring love affair with line."  Hirschfeld had discovered Japanese woodblock prints in the 1920s, probably during his trip to Paris, if not before, and his Bali experience gave him a much better understanding of Japanese woodblock prints.  "I am much more influenced by the drawings of Harunobu, Utamaro, and Hokusai than I am by the painters of the West."  Now Balinese sculpture, painting, and drawing became another major influence.  The other major consequence of Hirschfeld's Bali trip was his decision to abandon landscapes and thereafter only paint or draw portraits.
The Grand Kabuki with Nakamura Kansaburo XVII, Nakamura Utaemon VI,
and Onoe Shoroku II in The New York Times (May 29, 1960) by Al Hirschfeld
(ink drawing)

Hirschfeld's first exposure to Kabuki theatre is not clear, but it is known that he saw  and drew a scene from a production of Koi-No-Yozakura ("Romance in Cherry Blossom Lane") that was mounted by the Japanese Theatre Association at the Booth Theatre in New York City for two weeks in 1930.  Led by the actor-manager Tokujiro Tsutsui, the troupe performed revised versions of Kabuki masterworks beefed up with additional scenes of swordplay, Tsutsui's specialty.  It is also known that Hirschfeld saw the Grand Kabuki when it came to New York City in 1960, although it is certainly possible that he had seen other classical kabuki plays at some earlier point.  He would again document another kabuki performance by the Grand Kabuki in 1969.

 
Ichikawa Ebizo IV (Danjuro V) as Takemura Sadanoshin 
in "Koi Nyobo Somewake Tazuna" (May 1794) by Toshusai Sharaku
(woodblock print)

In 1975, Hirschfeld went to Sardi's where he ran into his friend, the composer Harold Rome, who introduced him to the head of Newsweek in Japan.  [Little known fact:  Harold Rome's adopted son Joshua is a woodblock print artist who spent 25 years living near Kyoto.]  Two weeks after being asked by the Newsweek editor if he'd like to go to Japan, Hirschfeld received a letter from a Japanese foundation offering him an all-expense paid trip to Japan to do drawings of Noh, Kabuki, and Bunraku puppet theatre.  "Coming to Japan and seeing traditional theater is full circle for me" because "[m]y work is greatly influenced by the Japanese woodblock printers [sic: print artists], Sharaku and Utamaro, who in turn were influenced by Kabuki.  Now I am here finally drawing the theatrical forms which have had great influences on my work."  He would later say that he was "closer to Japanese art than most Japanese" because most contemporary Japanese artists "are influenced by the New York school, while I have been influenced by Hokusai and Utamaro."

Iwai Hanshirôo IV as Shigenoi in 'Koinyôbô Somewake Tazuna" (1794)
by Toshusai Sharaku
(woodblock print)

Upon his return to the States, Hirschfeld composed a series of black and white drawings of everything from a geisha girl to sumo wrestlers.  In 1976, he designed a suite of 12 lithographs printed by George J. Goodstadt, Inc., commonly referred to as the Kabuki series, based on his original gouaches.  (Hirschfeld was no stranger to lithography, having made his own stone lithographs in his studio from the late 1920s to the early 1940s.)  The edition size for the Kabuki series was 275, with an additional deluxe edition of 25 printed on Japon Nacre paper.  As David Leopold has noted, Hirschfeld used an abundance of color in these prints, suggesting the flat colors of the woodblock prints that he admired so much.  I've reproduced the entire Kabuki series below; in many cases I have contrasted Hirschfeld's work with those of either contemporary or classical ukiyo-e woodblock print artists.

Sukeroku (1976), from the Kabuki Series by Al Hirschfeld
Personal Collection
(lithograph)

Ichikawa Omezo as Hanagawado no Sukeroku (1806) by Utagawa Toyokuni I
(woodblock print)

Kochiyama (1976), from the Kabuki Series by Al Hirschfeld
Personal Collection
(lithograph)

Nakamura Shikan VII as Kuzunoha in "Kuzunoha" (July 1986),
from the series Bust Portraits V, "Six Busts of Female Role Specialists" by Tsuruya Kokei
 Courtesy of http://tsuruya-koukei.com
(woodblock print)

Bunraku (1976), from the Kabuki Series by Al Hirschfeld
(lithograph)
 
 Fuji (1976), from the Kabuki Series by Al Hirschfeld
(lithograph)

Wisteria Maiden (Fuji musume) and Demon Chanting the Name of the Buddha
(Oni no nenbutsu), from the series "Souvenir Paintings from Ôtsu miyage" (c. 1802-1803)
by Kitagawa Utamaro
(woodblock print) 
   
 Hanjo (1976), from the Kabuki Series by Al Hirschfeld
(lithograph)

Study for the print Hanjo (March 1925) from the series
"One Hundred No Dramas (Nôgaku hyakuban)" by Tsukioka Kogyo
Personal Collection
(ink with watercolor)

Kanonko (1976), from the Kabuki Series by Al Hirschfeld
(lithograph)


Bando Tamasaburo in "Musume Dojoji" (September 1995) by Paul Binnie
Personal Collection
(woodblock print)
 
Musume (1976), from the Kabuki Series by Al Hirschfeld
(lithograph)

 Yoshizawa Enjirô as a Shirabyôshi Dancer, with Matsumoto Kôshirô V and
Sawamura Gennosuke as Priests (1807) by Utagawa Toyokuni I
(woodblock print)

Renjishi (1976), from the Kabuki Series by Al Hirschfeld
(lithograph)

 Red and White Shishi Dancers (1983) by Mori Yoshitoshi
Courtesy of the Ronin Gallery
(stencil print)

 
 Kyo (1976), from the Kabuki Series by Al Hirschfeld
(lithograph)

Shibaraku (1976), from the Kabuki Series by Al Hirschfeld
(lithograph)

 Genroku Mie (The Genroku Pose in Shibaraku) (1994) by Paul Binnie
Personal Collection
(stencil print)

 Sumano (1976), from the Kabuki Series by Al Hirschfeld
(lithograph)

Sugawara (1976), from the Kabuki Series by Al Hirschfeld
(lithograph)

Arashi Kichisaburô III as Matsuômaru (R), Jitsukawa Enzaburô I as Umeômaru (C),
and Bandô Hikosaburô V as Sakuramaru (L), in Act 3 of "Sugawara Tenarai Kagami"
(1859) by Utagawa Yoshitaki
(woodblock print)

1976 was coincidentally the year that Stephen Sondheim's and John Weidman's musical "Pacific Overtures," which dealt with the opening of Japan to the West, premiered on Broadway.  Hirschfeld drew members of the cast for the Sunday New York Times the week after the show opened.

Pacific Overtures in The New York Times (January 18, 1976) by Al Hirschfeld
(ink drawing)

Hirschfeld would again draw members of the Grand Kabuki when they returned to New York City in 1977, 1979, 1982, and 1985.

Tomijuro Nakamura V of the Grand Kabuki 
in The New York Times (February 16, 1979) by Al Hirschfeld
 (ink drawing)

The Grand Kabuki with Nakamura Kanzaburo, Nakamura Utaemon, Ichikawa Ebizo,
and Nakamura Tomijuro in The New York Times (June 27, 1982) by Al Hirschfeld
(ink drawing)

The Grand Kabuki with Ichikawa Danjuro XII, Kataoka Takao, Onoe Tatsunosuke I, Bando Tamasaburo, and Onoe Shoroku II in The New York Times (July 7, 1985) by Al Hirschfeld
(ink drawing)

In preparing this post, I noticed a few things about Hirschfeld's Kabuki series that I had not fully appreciated before.  First, a large number of the designs depict famous kabuki dance roles. No doubt this is in part because the moments captured are highly theatrical.  But it is also probably because throughout his professional life Hirschfeld seemed to particularly enjoy drawing dancers, whether they were appearing in Broadway musicals or in ballet companies.  Dance was also the subject that lured Hirschfeld back to lithography in 1970 after nearly a thirty-year absence when he printed his Rhythm series of dance portraits.

John Lithgow in M. Butterfly in The New York Times (May 27, 1988) by Al Hirschfeld
(ink drawing)

Second, Hirschfeld's theatre drawings for the New York Times tend to be first and foremost about the particular actors showcased in the play/movie/show and only secondarily (if at all) about the specific roles that they are playing.  For example, Hirschfeld's drawing of John Lithgow in the play M. Butterfly could be Lithgow in almost any role.  Hirschfeld's Kabuki series, however, are primarily (perhaps entirely) about the characters, not the performers portraying those characters.  Of course, the very nature of classical Japanese theatre with its stylized makeup, wigs, and costumes inherently leads to somewhat formalized, rather than highly individualized, characterizations.  Indeed, in the case of certain Noh theatre plays, the use of masks hides the actor's face altogether from the audience, as in the "Hanjo" print.

Kabuki Head Study (1975) by Al Hirschfeld
(watercolor)

Moreover, although the prints may have been inspired by actual performances that Hirschfeld saw in Japan, no specific actor is ever identified.  Maybe certain Japanese actors might be readily identifiable to serious students of Kabuki, but they bring no flash of recognition to a Kabuki neophyte such as myself.  Again, I think the key lies with Hirschfeld's Rhythm series, where the focus was on the dance style depicted, not on any particular dancer performing the steps.  Here, Hirschfeld's focus is on the archetypal Kabuki and Noh roles, probably because he knew that his Western clientele likely wouldn't recognize the Japanese actors anyway or be motivated to purchased the prints because of the specific actor depicted.  Instead, their beauty and charm is seeing these Japanese stock roles filtered through Hirschfeld's eyes.
B.D. Wong in M. Butterfly in The New York Times (September 16, 1988) by Al Hirschfeld
(ink drawing)

If there is one woodblock printmaker alive today who embodies a synthesis of Sharaku and Hirschfeld, that would be Tsuruya Kokei.  Kokei did not begin to make kabuki woodprint prints until 1978, which would have been after Hirschfeld visited Japan.  (He stopped making kabuki prints altogether in 2000, although he has recently started to make yaso-e (gather together) prints.)  It's doubtful that Kokei has ever seen Hirschfeld's Kabuki series, although it's possible that he may have encountered one of Hirschfeld's other drawings at some point in his life.  But, like Hirschfeld, Kokei uses line in an economical fashion to produce extremely vivid and highly recognizable caricatures of contemporary Japanese kabuki stage actors in the woodblock print medium.


 Ichikawa Danjuro XII as Hanakawado Sukeroku in "Sukeroku" (June 1985), 
from the series "A Selection of Six Aragoto Characters - 
the Name-taking Ceremony of Ichikawa Danjuro XII" by Tsuruya Kokei
 Courtesy of http://tsuruya-koukei.com
(woodblock print)

Onoe Baiko VII as Masaoka in "Sendai Hagi" (October 1990) by Tsuruya Kokei
Courtesy of http://tsuruya-koukei.com
(woodblock print)

It is well-known to fans of Hirschfeld's work that virtually all of his drawings made after the birth in 1945 of his daughter, Nina, contain at least one "NINA" buried somewhere in the drawing.  However, it does not appear that he incorporated any NINAs in his Kabuki series guoaches and lithographs.  Certainly I've never been able to find any in my copies of "Sukeroku" and "Kochiyama."  And believe me, I've tried.

Self-Portrait at 98 (June 21, 2001) by Al Hirschfeld
(ink drawing)

My thanks to David Leopold for sharing his knowledge about Hirschfeld's life and to the Al Hirschfeld Foundation for graciously allowing me to reproduce Al Hirschfeld's work in this post.

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