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.