Long after the critics who mocked him have been forgotten
What could an old man from Poland who had retired from the rag trade in New York City in 1935 have to offer the world of surrealism?
It turns out, quite a lot.
Morris Hirschfield didn’t start painting until he was 65 and had been forced to retire from the company he founded due to poor health at age 63.
When Mr. Hirschfield began painting, he did not sign up for classes at the Y and the School of Visual Arts wasn’t around yet. Instead, he simply started painting. He didn’t even go out and buy canvases when he began. His first two pieces were cover jobs over existing paintings his wife had around the house (Fun fact: he kept one small bit from the previous painting in each).
The exhibition at the American Museum of Folk Art ran until January 29, but you can still see some of these amazing works of art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Mr. Hirschfield kept a kosher home and was an observant Jew throughout his life, so those nudes in his work were not painted from life. Which is kind of obvious.
Take a look at first at the woman on the left and then at her "reflection". See? Now, look at both women’s feet. You’re right. They both have two left feet. This drove some small-minded critics bonkers when the self-taught painter got a one-man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Perhaps Mr. Hirschfield’s rabbi was happier than the critics when choirs of angels hovered above scantily clad showgirls? Perhaps not. However, Mr. Hirschfield didn’t limit himself to painting oddly proportioned naked women. Sometimes he painted oddly proportioned women fully clothed and floating above strangely proportioned furniture. With pigeons.
And yet somehow it works!
Numerous contemporary critics — people who have a clue unlike their 1940s counterparts — note the evocative use of textile textures in the work. Not surprising for a man who spent his adult life designing and manufacturing first women’s coats and then the patented EZ Walker ladies’ slipper (which made him a fortune).
Ladies, naked ladies, those are good. Ladies with clothes and birds. Also good. Let’s go with ladies who are walking their dogs but here’s a thought: let’s make it difficult to tell whether those are dogs or…badgers?
Mr. Hirschfield never let anything stand in the way of what he wanted to paint and you just have to love that. Anatomy? Puh, anyone can learn how to draw and paint realistic-looking bodies. Who can turn a smudged-up paper elephant….
Into this glorious beast, the likes of which I can guarantee you has never walked this earth. Magic, pure magic.
Mr. Hirschfield, thank you. Thank you for painting what you wanted to paint and for painting it exactly as you wanted to. I hope you ignored the weenies who called themselves “experts” and “critics” in 1943, the ones who got their knickers in such a twist about your dazzling exhibition at MoMA, but as we can see with a quick run to The Google, there your work is in their permanent collection.
Does anyone remember the great wit who came up with Master of the Two Left Feet?
Only a true genius would paint a dog and her puppies with eyes on the same side of their heads and wallpaper coats reclining on a complex and beautiful tweed bed of moss. Or something. And do so in such a way that it stops the viewer in his tracks.
Fortunately, the surrealists of the time recognized the talent and vision of this artist’s paintings. They welcomed him — not as a “primitive” or “outsider” painter, but as a true visionary surrealist.
May you rest in peace, Mr. Hirschfield, and I hope you know you left the world a richer place with your creativity and courage.
* All photography in this piece was done at The American Museum of Folk Art by my partner in life and art, AleXander Hirka. All photography is used with his express permission.
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