On December 7, 1941, the now defunct Hyperion Press published Harlem As Seen By Hirschfeld, an oversized limited edition album of 24 color lithographs by Hirschfeld, with a foreword by William Saroyan. 19 images were of scenes from life in Harlem, while 5 touched on his experience in Bali nine years earlier. Because its release coincided with the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hirschfeld’s achievement was lost in the lead up to America’s declaration of war, and subsequently its involvement in World War II. Hirschfeld genuinely loved these prints, and the hallway leading to his studio was lined with all 24 prints framed so that he could see them each time he entered.
He printed the color lithographs at the Brooklyn Home for the Blind with his friend, fellow artist Don Freeman. There the two created and printed more than 1,000 prints of each image on a multilith printer for both the book (a limited, numbered edition of 1,000) and exhibitions he hoped to have of the work. He sold no prints at the only gallery show he had of this work in 1942, and a portion of the limited-edition books was destroyed from a leaky roof in the publisher’s warehouse. Earlier in the year, the publisher had released oversize books of Goya, Rembrandt, Derain, and The Stronger Sex with art by Marcel Vertès and text by Janet Flanner, yet it went bankrupt the day Hirschfeld’s book came out.
2021 marks the 80th anniversary of the book’s publication. We celebrate this book with this exhibition of the prints in the book along with commentary provided by a wide range of Black personalities from Eartha Kitt to Howard Dodson from the Schomburg Center, which were included in the 2003 book, Hirschfeld's Harlem. Just before his death, Hirschfeld wrote the following for the revised publication of the book.
I have lived almost my whole life on the outskirts of Harlem. When my mother moved our family to New York City in the middle teens of the previous century, we settled in Washington Heights, the neighborhood just above Harlem. A few years later we moved near the Polo Grounds, which is even closer to Harlem, if not in it. When I was of high school age, I began attending the Vocational School for Boys on 138th Street and Lenox Avenue, which I’m almost certain is in Harlem. Harlem was as familiar and as accessible to me as the blocks around your house are to you, or the fields around your homestead, or the ice floes around your igloo. When at long last I finally made enough money to buy my own house I bought one on the Upper East Side of Manhattan—just below Harlem.
One of the biggest shocks of my life came only a few years after the end of Prohibition in the mid Thirties. I was just walking down a Harlem street like I always did when a cruising patrol car pulled up next to me. Scared the heck out of me. The cop looked at me like maybe I was crazy. What the hell was I doing walking there anyway. What did he mean, I asked him. Didn’t I know, he says, it’s not safe to walk around Harlem? That incident had a very disquieting effect on me and in some way prompted the work you see before you now. I had been so continuously enchanted with the Harlem I had grown up near and visited my whole life that I was unprepared to see, I resisted, the new Harlem realities that had crept upon her unguarded flanks. And what I began to see post-enchantment was something more akin to love and awe for the Harlemites who carried on.
Harlem people just kept on rising above whatever met them at eye level; regardless of the rugged terrain or the economic weather, Harlem residents had their own means of levitation. They perfected an art form beyond the Arts, beyond the stage, beyond the Cotton Club. Very real people meeting reality head on and then stubbornly transcending it. Some commentators have made much of the fact that these aren’t Hirschfeld’s typical performers. Well, they’re not on the stretch of Broadway I had covered before or since. But these Harlemites are performers all right. They are in rehearsal for the performance of their lives. It’s that grand profound ritual I hope to have captured here.
Sister Ebony’s face radiates the whole history of Blackness. Her visage reminds one of an African tribal mask wrapped in the sober habit of a Catholic nun. The juxtaposition of cultures, of millennia, is unsettling and profound. The power flowing through her can and has sustained the entire human race. She is the bearer.
Hirschfeld chose this powerfully incongruous figure as the first image of his Harlem portfolio. Sister Ebony witnesses the promenade of Harlemites as they pass before her. She distributes compassion and understanding to the sometimes troubled souls who follow on succeeding pages. Might she also stand as a stern warning at the portal to Harlem about the choices to be made inside this fabled land of the high life?
Here is a woman hardened, no doubt, by life’s prejudices. But she is also a women with the physical and spiritual strength to persevere and prevail, just as Harlem itself has persevered and prevailed. Harlem, as we are reminded on these glorious pages, is justifiably celebrated for its arts—but it is also deeply steeped in spirituality and known for its exuberant liturgy, great charity, and boundless faith.
Here is a Hirschfeld take on an uptown Manhattan after-hours reveler who may be on her way back outside from one of those legendary rent party shindigs where, along with the most fantastic stride (i.e. eastern Ragtime) piano music in the world, the menu featured down-home recipe pig’s foot and bottled beer.
Or maybe the venue this time was one or maybe even a sequence of gin mills, cozy hole-in-the-wall sip, snack, and jive joints mainly along and between Lenox and St. Nicholas Avenues from, say, 125th Street. On up towards Sugar Hill, where during the Prohibition Era, the joy juice was served under the counter, or (especially in ballrooms) shared from a hip pocket flask by an old friends or would-be friends and/or dancing partner.
Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, not unlike many other blues divas and red hot mamas, boasted that when they were “in their gin” they became so “sent” (i.e. ecstatic) that they didn’t care about anything but the good times they were having.
But Hirschfeld’s somewhat over-indulged reveler who is ever so obviously weak in the knees and ankles has not crushed her elegantly plumed hat, and she knows precisely where her purse is!
As for the ever so patient cop, he has not taken her into custody; he’s taking her home if she lives in his precinct and to a cab or bus if she lives elsewhere. After all, a good uptown cop in those good old days knew that good business was good for his precinct. Nor did his civic pride go unacknowledged by the local business establishment.
Just like Hirschfeld…this
Portrait of “The Reefer Man” immediately
Reminds me of the coolest…most hip…Cats uptown…
From sunrise to sunset…These cats sincerely kept their styles
Above water…Always a couple of steps ahead of the laws…
Just like Hirschfeld → this portrait is wreakin’ that potent
Harlem reefer man attitude…One couldn’t help but to notice
Hirschfeld’s uncanny sense of humor→
Thanx 4 The reefer man…
As a native New Yorker, native-born, this picture certainly has resonance for me. It conjures up memories of my growing up in the magical neighborhood of Harlem—and attending some of the best parties ever at the Savoy and Renaissance Ballrooms.
My introduction to dance was winning a dance contest at Junior High School 43—I danced the Lindy. It prompted one of my teachers to recommend me to the High School of Performing Arts. And the rest, as they say, is history.
The Lindy Hop is a dance infused with ingenuity, rhythm, freedom, and joy. These characteristics embody the essence of the community of Harlem.
As I travel around the world, I marvel at the love and admiration spoken of Harlem in a dozen languages. There is a mystique about Harlem that one yearns to experience. What they discover is a Mecca of spirited people with a rich culture and outstanding achievement.
-Arthur Mitchell, Dance Theatre of Harlem
You always knew!
You always kept that bad boy layin’
Back in the cut—just waitin’—
Just waitin’, for that right moment—
When to paint some more pep
In the step—
When to add a little more
Dip in the hip—
When to slip a little more
Slide in the glide—
The Harlem thang- - -
Al, you always felt it.
And we knew it!
I’m glad I got to know you for so long
In a country otherwise populated by lades wearing white gloves, Harlem was probably one of the most liberated neighborhoods in existence. True, Harlemites were largely restricted socially to their own environs, but they were also liberated by them, and by their own innovation.
The couple in Scufflin’ In is dynamic just standing still. This sensuous sway of dancing started by liberating Harlem, but from here, it eventually liberated the whole nation. And dig that crazy zoot suit the gent is wearing. Dance and music were being transformed on a nearly nightly basis in Harlem during this very musical era at places like the Savoy Ballroom and Baron Wilkins.
Al Hirschfeld makes us want to break out into verse:
Scufflin’ In Reminds Us Of A
Symphony of Spirits
An Unabashed Coming Together
Of the Universal Life Forces
That Propels and Inspires Us
Toward Divine Goals
Boogie Woogie simply comes alive the longer one gazes at it. How many times before you have witnessed that smile of sheer ecstasy on the face of the gentlemen on the right? How about his partner’s cool—and, indeed, how about that behind? The couple to the left tell it all exactly the way it is. I love the clothes, the movement, the very funk of it all.
By framing his swaying dancers in that archway, Hirschfeld allows us to share his own sense of intimacy, and we are vouchsafed a glimpse of a modern ritual not exactly open to the general public. With the dancers’ postures, Hirschfeld conveys how very long this ritual has been going on, and that these people are in a sense captured in their rapture, unable to stop however exhausted they feel.
Boogie Woogie is a moving metaphor for many Harlemites in this difficult era, the tail end of the Depression. They had little besides their new music and the pleasure derived from their bodies. As exhilarating as all that way, they were still prisoners of their troubles. Through music and the dance they could escape from their everyday hardship for as long as they could keep up with the beat. The end result is a piece of Harlem that will not and cannot be reprised.
North of Central Park in this era attracted my friend Al Hirschfeld as it had countless others, all inspired by the allure of a Harlem where joy was the password and glamour was the order of the day and night.
Taps on his feet
Hittin’ the pavement with a clean beat
Walkin’ bass thumpin’ in his chest
Tuxedo jacket in a grand piano hand
A trumpet blast flash of a smile
The sax section risin’ behind those eyes
A muted trombone slippery slides:
“Hey, Sweet Thang, you sho’ look fine!”
The Numbers King is with us once again
Walkin’ down the street
Like a Big Band.
The title is mysterious and she is mysterious. Is it seven AM or PM? Is she a working woman or a working girl? Has she been working all night? Or working all day? She is definitely tired. I don’t think she’s a real Harlemite. I think she’s newly arrived from the South. She hasn’t quite got the Harlem style. The real Harlem style—the girls I worked with at the Cotton Club had no money, but they had it. She looks worn down by life and can’t afford to get her hair done. She looks a little defeated. She reminds me of Langston Hughes’ “Miss Blues’es Child”:
If the blue would let me.
Lord know I would smile.
If the blues would let me,
I would smile, smile, smile.
Instead of that I’m cryin’—
I must be Miss Blues’es child.
It’s Sunday. We are so clean. We are a family. We are the generation of today standing between two other periods of time. We are both dreams and expression of our parents linking us to their past. Our dreams for the young one links us to the future. It’s Sunday. We are so clean. Do you know what I mean?
I can’t help but recall a Congressional predecessor of mine from Harlem—the flamboyant, courageous, innovative, controversial and unfailingly entertaining, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. It was just about the time Hirschfeld’s Harlem first came out, 1941, that Powell—an extremely charismatic figure—was elected to the New York City Council. Four years later, he became the first African American elected from Harlem to the United States House of Representatives.
Powell was a powerful, early voice in the national government for Civil Rights. He had the good fortune to remain in the Congress until his dream, the Civil Rights Act, was enacted in 1964. That bill was, in fact, a version of his own earlier Powell Amendment.
Every politician needs a little flamboyance to float his message across. And in Harlem, style is a currency all its own. There are days when tyle lifts you above all your troubles. Hirschfeld has magically combined that chemistry of pride and purpose. He has captured as well the joy and burgeoning desires of Harlemites at this crucial juncture in their history, when the march to freedom was just taking its first real steps. Studying Sugar Hill Statesman today reminds us that we still have a far way to go and much yet to accomplish.
-Congressman Charles B. Rangel
I looked into the shallow bowl of the old spoon and saw my entire life swimming in black wax.
Each bead I string along my lashes is heavy with memories
Full houses, empty seats, bad lighting, enthusiastic audiences,
Splintered floors, missed steps, cold dressing rooms, generous
Smiles, tears, anticipation, ecstasy, envy jealousy, failures,
All this and more—
in one small teaspoon of beading.
You have a good idea
what to tell the flock this week,
but surprise! The Holy Spirit says,
“Stand back and let me speak!”
Closed eyes and praying hands
bespeak a rapturous union.
The congregation waits in awe—
what blessed, sweet communion!
Grace-filled words come tumbling out.
They make the whole place shiver.
All the people shout “Amen!”
And joy flows like a river.
-Reverend Dr. James A. Forbes, Jr., The Riverside Church
Most of these sessions evaporated into the thin early morning Harlem air, but this one resonates beyond that back room, throughout eternity. The great master of line is off on his own solo, capturing the vibe, the soul of these jazz musicians.
Al was a wonderful drummer in those days. These gents may be having a hard time keeping up with his Timpani with Pen and Brush. Al is sitting in, jamming, and not sitting back either.
That was part of Hirschfeld’s gift. He didn’t lean back, he leaned in. He didn’t record, he soared. In 1956 he drew me dancing (in rather a scanty costume) as an African King in Show Boat. My body glided across the page of The New York Times as it never did on stage. He knew my body language better than my understudy. Better perhaps than I ever did myself.
He’s late again. That’s it! I’m leavin’! Well, I’m gonna wait five more minutes. I been waitin’ long enough. Spent all afternoon at the beauty shop. Got my grandmamma’s pearls on. This here is my finest dress and my feet are startin’ to hurt in these shoes.
Where is that man? Big night, he said. Special night, he said. Important night, he said. I been practicin’ my “I do.” Well, just maybe I’ll say “I won’t!”
That’s it. I’m leavin’…after five more minutes.
When you look at this Hirschfeld you know it’s Sunday afternoon on the promenade in Harlem, an historical Harlem that exists in photographs and memories of old Harlem residents. Sundays were the days when maids, deliverymen, mechanics and hairdressers who were invisible downtown, became visible socialites and peacocks wearing the latest fashions and trends—contrary to the movie stereotypes of the time.
The family unit out walking the Harlem promenade. Listen…can’t you hear the music of Duke or Cab? Hey, maybe they are on their way to dinner or maybe they are just out for a stroll. So proud and beautiful, knowing that on Monday as they head back to work downtown, assuming the cloak of invisibility once more, they live in a world, a microcosm, which few knew; a magical world that came to life on Sundays on the promenade in Harlem.
Al gives us a visual insight into our past and I can’t thank him enough.
Slow Blues is sensual, elegant, stylish, playful and very, very sly. It brilliantly captres that time of the night when Saturday night vanity gives way to passion and need.
During the week these people exist in defiance of society’s definition of who they are, but come Saturday night, they are their own uncompromising elegant selves.
Such was/is the power of blue. Such was/is the power of Harlem and the people who live there.
And Hirschfeld captured it all.
I feel the warm affection Hirschfeld must have felt for Harlem, African American women, and women in general. I feel the warmth and sensuality of this particular woman, the great feeling of her beauty. The spirituality of her soul reads through her whole body. Her hands, her long fingers are so expressive as though to say “my lover has just left and I can’t wait for his return.”
I reach out and feel the nubby pale paint on that old Thirties cast-iron bed frame. And the wallpaper—I feel like I could turn around, open the door and walk right into this Harlem boarding house. No trouble imagining how special Al Hirschfeld must have felt to discover Cocoa Venus in 1941.
Cocoa Venus, wherever you are, keep on waiting. Your lover is coming home!
Al Hirschfeld recognized beauty and artistic genius when he saw it. Walking the streets of Harlem, frequenting its establishments, seeing its sights and listening to its sounds, he discovered it’s inner beauty, life and vitality and depicted it in his signature artistic style. Photographs of the period confirm the authority and authenticity of his vision. His interpretations of Harlem’s reality record images that no photograph could quite capture. His art celebrated Harlem’s and Harlemites’ unique cultural and aesthetic style—the way Harlemites would stand, walk, dress, look and dance.
The world-famous Savoy Ballroom was the epicenter of Harlem’s dance world. The thousands of revelers who would gather nightly in the block-long dance hall invented many of the dances that would make Harlem and the Savoy famous. But the Savoy was more than a dance hall. It was one of the stages on which Harlemites sported their fashions and their attitudes as they danced to the big band sounds of Louis Armstrong, Chick Webb, Fletcher Henderson, and Duke Ellington, to mention just a few.
The music never stopped at the Savoy. Neither did the dancing. Hirschfeld’s Stompin’ at the Savoy reveals Harlem’s aesthetics, style and attitudes at their finest.
-Howard Dodson, The Schomburg Center
The Baris, a traditional war dance, glorifies the manhood of the triumphant Balinese warrior. Baris derives its name from the word bebarisan, which literally means "line" or "file formation", referring to the soldiers who served the ancient rajas of Bali. Originally, the dance was a religious ritual: the dedication of warriors and their weapons during a temple feast. There are two main types of baris dance which can be found throughout the island of Bali. The non-ritual dance is performed by a solo male dancer and is often the first dance that a budding dancer learns. There are over thirty different types of ritual baris dances, each of which is performed by a group of people, still imitating the movements of the warrior.
Legong is a form of Balinese dance characterized by intricate finger movements, complicated footwork, and expressive gestures and facial expressions. Legong probably originated in the 19th century as royal entertainment. Legend has it that a prince fell ill and had a dream in which two maidens danced to gamelan music. When he recovered, he arranged for such dances to be performed. Others believe that the Legong originated with the sanghyang dedari, a ceremony involving voluntary possession of two young girls by beneficent spirits, according to Miquel Covarrubias in his book, Island of Bali. Traditionally, legong dancers were girls who have not yet reached puberty. They start training from about the age of five. These dancers are regarded highly in the society and usually become wives of royal personages or wealthy merchants. Once married, they stop dancing.
A djanger dance is similar to legong. It features rows of singing girls, weaving patterns with their hands. The word djanger means humming, and the name of the dance comes from the hummed or murmured background surrounding the entranced girl dancers. The elaborate headdresses are typically modifications of traditional Balinese wedding and funerary headdresses worn in religious ceremonies.
In the dance drama called Calon Arang, Barong emerges to counteract Rangda's use of magic to control the world. In Balinese mythology, Barong is a prominent character often in the form of a lion, regarded as the King of the Spirits who represent Virtue. Barong is seen as ‘a guardian angel’. Rangda is the Queen of Demons. The performers get into a trance state and fight each other with kris daggers, but upon the appearance of Barong, they turn their kris and stab themselves. Barong then defeats Rangda, thus restoring balance in nature. Meanwhile, the tranced men are reincarnated by the sprinkle of holy water.
The concept of spiritual possession exists in many religions. Balinese religion is an integration of Hindu-Buddhist and shamanist beliefs, characterized by a regular cycle of temple festivals – featuring elaborate food offerings and other ceremonies as needed for rites of passage, healing, or crisis situations. Music and dance play a major role in Balinese religion, as does trance. Trance dance is practiced as a way of being in the world and serves as medium to satisfy the supernatural beings. Although the Balinese value dignity, decorum, and deliberateness, in a trance dance, dancers are possessed by a spirit in which they perform acts such a devouring live chicks and attacking themselves with daggers while speaking with the spirit’s voice, giving instructions for ceremonies, finding lost objects or helping the body to heal.