Obituary: Eila Hershon
Wednesday 01 December 1993
EILA HERSHON was an outstanding international documentary film-maker. A formidable and very successful independent producer- director, Hershon was also extremely stylish in person. A close friend of designers such as Karl Lagerfeld (who collaborated with her on her film series for Channel 4 The Story of Fashion), Hershon preferred to carry her tape-recorder in a quilted and chained Chanel shoulder bag and was to be seen in the front row of fashion shows always clad in tomorrow's fashions from her favourite designers.
Hershon started her creative life as a painter whose figurative essays on the human figure were almost masculine in their solidity and power. Born in Brookline, Massachusetts, in 1932, she attended the Boston Museum School and, in 1953, went to Switzerland to work with Oskar Kokoschka. Some years later she made a 30-minute film portrait of the artist at home in Switzerland which examined the penetrating depth of his work through examples from collections in Europe and the United States.
In the early Sixties Hershon began to exhibit her work in the United States and in Germany, where she lived in Cologne during her first marriage to the graphic designer Hannes Jahn. Before giving up painting and turning to film- making in 1966, Hershon had been given eight solo shows in the United States, London, Germany and South America. Her work is featured in leading museums and private collections in Europe and the United States.
At the very outset of her filmmaking career, Hershon met Roberto Guerra through the Maysel brothers, the New York film-makers. Guerra had trained as an engineer in Lima, and made films in Peru, before moving to New York to pursue his career. Hershon and Guerra's partnership, beginning in 1968, spanned 25 years of the closest and happiest artistic collaboration imaginable. Their films are characterised by a subtle sense of involvement with their subjects, built up over months of careful preparation, getting to know their subject and their subject getting to know and in particular appreciate Hershon's extraordinary empathy, particularly with creative artists.
A strong, determined woman herself, Hershon relished the challenge of making film portraits of equally strong women, amongst whom were Coco Chanel, Estee Lauder, Helena Rubinstein and, notably, the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. Hershon's 60-minute portrait of this great artist was the first important film to be made about her. Other artists also came under her close and sympathetic scrutiny; she made film portraits of the German Surrealist Konrad Klapheck and Hans Haacke, the kinetic and conceptual artist whose recent Venice Biennale Pavilion caused an international stir.
The history of the cinema itself attracted her attention in the early Seventies and her close friendship and collaboration with Henri Langlois, the remarkable man who saved thousands of films from destruction and founded the Cinematheque Francaise, resulted in a 50-minute film portrait and in the extremely important and as yet unfinished 120-minute film Seventy Five Years of Cinema.
Films made by Hershon, always in collaboration with Guerra, appeared on Channel 4 and numerous other international television stations. Hershon and Guerra were inseparable when making films, for which Guerra operated the camera while Hershon asked the questions, and also inseparable in life. They married in 1991.
Eila Hershon's friends, among whom I was lucky to be included, will remember her enormous energy, enthusiasm and somewhat eccentric capacity for organisation on an international scale. She ran her life using a series of calendars amongst which the one called 'Beautiful Ireland', featuring hand-coloured photographs of Irish provincial life, remains a particularly affectionate memory. She enjoyed encouraging the young, and she also loved showing very old films to friends at home in London or in her apartment in the Trump Tower, often accompanying the film with Chinese take-away.
Above all, in her films as in her life, Eila Hershon was an inspired listener whose sympathy, common sense and sure creative judgement are private memories as permanent as the documentaries which will be her public memorial.
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