William Saroyan & Morris Hirshfield
On September 6th, 2023, the Cantor Art Center at Stanford opened a new exhibit of the works of painter Morris Hirshfield. A Polish immigrant who worked in the textile industry, he began to paint following his retirement. He created 77 paintings in the nine years between finding the arts and his death in 1946, but they caught the eye of many in the art world, and especially those dabbling in Surrealism. Legendary painter André Breton was a major booster of Hirshfeld’s paintings, and his art was included in the famed show The First Papers of Surrealism in 1942. The one-man show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art did not fare well with critics, but his work was well-known and he continued painting.
Oddly, more than thirty years after his death, William Saroyan and Morris Hirshfield’s paths would cross in one of the most beautifully produced books in the Saroyan canon – 1976’s Morris Hirshfield.
Milanese publisher Franco Maria Ricci was a publisher of art books. He tended to specialize in artists that were not the biggest names in the world of fine arts. Ricci produced books centered around the work of artists like Tamara de Lempicka. He published both in Italian and English, often doing two or more versions of the same book. His books were instantly recognizable. The design began with a black box. The boxes were an important aspect of the design, meant to convey a sense that these were pieces deserving of protection, of keeping out of the harm of light and air. Open the box and you’re greeted with the book itself. A sturdy book with a black silk, hardboard cover, stamped with gold, or sometimes silver, lettering. The image on the cover would be glued on, an extremely high-quality reproduction of a work from the artist. These reproductions were glossy, and at a quality that few if any printed covers could match at the time. The resulting cover gives the sense that what is within is of the highest value, that to compete with the cover would require exquisite precision and design sense.
The interiors do not disappoint.
The paper is hand-made, tinted blue-grey. The textures and composition allow the ink to impress cleanly and produce an incredible crispness. From the endpapers, with their repetitive stylized leaves, to the straight vertical rule that runs across each page, the design is immaculate.
For Morris Hirshfield, Ricci used the words of three writers; the first was Sidney Janis, an acclaimed art dealer whose gallery in New York featured several early Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock, and who would become the leading dealer in Pop Art. Janis was a major supporter of Morris Hirshfield.
Janis had collected an incredible variety of works from the Surrealists, including several that he would later donate to the Museum of Modern Art in New York while he was on the board. His attention to Hirshfield helped gain the painter acclaim, and this led to inclusion in significant Surrealist shows. His piece desribes Hirshfield as a painter and his interactions with him, how he discovered his work, and the impact it had on him.
The analysis of Hirshfield’s output is an essay by Oto Bihalji-Merin, one of the 20th century's most acclaimed and beloved art critics. The essay, Morris Hirshfield, Painter of Chaste Nudity, explores Hirshfield’s nudes and the ways in which they play less in the field of the erotic, instead transferring his attention to the details of the composition of every object, of which the nude figures are just one.
There are dozens of images by Hirshfield throughout the book. They are exquisitely printed on glossy paper, cut, then pasted into the book. This method, called ‘tipping in’ allows for that high-quality imagery at a lower price. It can also be difficult over time as the glue can warp the papers as it shrinks.
The largest portion of the book, though, is the text by William Saroyan.
Saroyan never met Hirshfield, but Ricci apparently believed that Saroyan was the right guy for the job. Like Hirshfield, Saroyan was not the product of schooling, and his work was often seen as that of an outsider. At the same time, the sheer exceptional energy both men imbued their work with made the establishment take note. Saroyan’s two essays are fascinating. The first is an imagined interview, or maybe better termed a discussion, between Saroyan and a long-dead Morris Hirshfield. The two talk about the idea of painting, and of mortality and how it relates to their respective art practices.
The opening ‘exchange’ in the piece gives it all a fascinating perspective:
William Saroyan: Morris Hirshfield, I’m William Saroyan
How does it feel to be famous?
Morris Hirshfield: Famous? Who’s Famous. Whatever your name is I’m dead.
WS: I don’t know about that, but in any case how dead can anybody be? And who cares about that when whoever it is who has died has left behind something. Something.
MH: Something, something, so I’m dead but I’ve left behind something.
This piece looks at the idea of fame after one has died, and of artwork as continuance. It addresses the trap of thinking that fame is anything more than fleeting, and often misremembered, or even unseen. The second piece, “Morris Hirshfield Successful Manufacturer of Women’s Slippers of Unsuccessful Painter of Beautiful Naked Women?” is a fascinating bit of writing that mostly examines the role of fame, continuing or long-passed, and how it relates to the world of art appreciation. In many ways, this feels like Saroyan having an excuse to go into his own personal philosophy on his creative process and output, and square it by pointing at another artist and their output. It’s a smart read, and it feels less like 1970s Saroyan than like the Saroyan that hit big with the stories in Inhale and Exhale in the 1930s. Some of the techniques, like long lists of rhetorical questions, bring to mind Saroyan's writing in the 1937 work Three Times Three, notably "Quarter, Half, Three-Quarters, and Whole Notes." In fact, the 'interview' of Morris Hirshfield has similarities to the introduction of "The Living and the Dead" which also appears in the same collection, where Saroyan (as 'The Writer') interviews 'The Reader.' It even shares similar themes. Saroyan may be treading familiar ground, but it is ground he hadn't passed through in a good long while.
Morris Hirshfield is full of incredible reproductions of the master’s paintings, about 2/3 of Hirshfield’s entire output. The images are beautiful, and they show an artist who was more interested in the ideas of the worlds he was painting than with faithful reproduction. Many of these paintings are featured in the exhibition at the Cantor Arts Centre.
-Article written by Archivist Chris Garcia, September 2023, San Jose. CA