Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Meet Madame X

In the previous post, I'd left entry number 10 off of my favorites list of Film Fun girls. So say hello to my number one Bolles girl. I can't remember when she hit the top of the charts but she's been there as long as I can remember, and I can state with confidence that there forever she will remain.

So why do I like her so? Let me count the ways. First, the pose is most unusual among Bolles covers. Of his over 500 magazine covers, only a handful were done using this from-the-back perspective. Second, both her expression and hair are unique. No blinding smile, squinting eyes or nimbus of flaming red hair for her. In fact her hair style is the most severe of any Bolles girl yet if you take a close look at the way he painted it, you'll notice it's not at all simple and the treatment of her hairline is actually asymmetric. It takes a lot of confidence and knowledge to do something like that and to know it will end up making her even more fetching. And talk about attractive; don't those huge olive gray eyes draw you into the picture?

So what else? I've written many times about Bolles' knowledge of color and how it works so well on the magazine stand, but look here. There's no color at all in her dress or shoes. Bolles once said that art editors liked any color as long as it was red and I wonder how he ever talked them into going for this scheme. Black is also difficult to print effectively and a lot of pulp magazines only ran covers in three colors, so there was no true black (I'll soon be doing a series on all the other black costumed covers Bolles did). What little accent color there is has been chosen very carefully. Notice how the color of his signature echoes the olive in her eyes and how the pink in her phosphate (or is it a shake?) plays off the color of her skin. This is Bolles minimalism at its best.

Where was I?...reason number four: gaze at those lovely hands. You've heard me go on and on about how Bolles loved drawing hands and used them to intensify compositions and as semiotic elements that serve both as signs and symbols. See how elongated her left hand is and how the mere fingertips of the right hand are exposed. The standard middle fingers touching pose has never been used more effectively. In this cover Bolles also featured what he considered was the most charged aspect of the female figure, and one that you likely would never have guessed...it's the shoulder. I learned this from a single quote buried in a letter Bolles wrote over 70 years ago and after reading it I could never look at Bolles girl quite the same way ever again. In this case the shoulder not only serves as the central compositional element in this painting but as with the hand, is noticeably elongated along with her upper arm. It's also worth pointing out that her choice of drink lends a whole different aspect to the painting compared to something like a flute of champagne or even a beer stein. Bolles completed a couple other covers where the girl was holding a soda shop drink and I have to wonder if it was some sort of inside story or symbolic meaning that is lost to a modern audience or perhaps just one of his more innocent visual puns.

Finally, some of you may have picked up on my lame intimation of a painting this one beckons to me, namely Sargent's painting of Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, better known as Portrait of Madame X. Not that I'm proposing Bolles did this as a riff on Sargent but he knew his art and was certainly well aware of this painting's history and its unanticipated aftermath. The public reaction to its debut in Paris was so notorious that Gauteau was forced to withdraw from high society and Sargent gave up his goal of becoming a full-time portraitist. Bolles also suffered from his choice of subject. The late Reid Austin, who served as Alberto Vargas' personal assistant at Playboy and who wrote the definitive biographies of both Vargas and Petty, speculated that Bolles' opportunities in the field of illustration became limited because of his notoriety as the cover artist for Film Fun. We may admire the beauty and attractiveness of today's subject and his other Film Fun girls, but in their day they often provoked indignation from polite society. And so Bolles may well have paid a personal price for our enjoyment.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Originals I'd like to see

As you know from previous posts, the series of auctions of the Martignette collection of illustration art have put a number of Bolles originals back into circulation, unfortunately for collectors at record prices. But one positive side effect is that this enthusiasm for Bolles has also other brought other originals long held in private collections into the market, several of which were thought to be lost. The example above first showed up at a Heritage auction several years ago and is back at auction again. I had found this sketch of the image in a 1930s art catalog but knew nothing about this painting until it showed at Heritage. I'm almost positive it was never published. Speaking of Heritage, check out whose art they chose for the catalog cover to feature their upcoming auction.

So all this raises the question which burns (perennially!) in my mind: what other Bolles paintings are there to be found? It's tempting to hope there are a lot, Bolles produced over 500 magazine covers. The harsh reality is that it's unlikely that many more are around. With rare exception the work by created by commercial illustrators became the property of the publisher and there are many sad stories about how paintings were neglected or thrown out with the trash. Very few artists kept their original art and fewer yet retained the rights to it. Among the more notable exceptions was George Petty, who not only held on to all his originals for Esquire but also retained the rights to the images, which he aggressively remarketed. Like the majority of commercial illustrators Bolles signed away the rights to his work though he did manage to hold onto a fair number of his paintings including comprehensive sketches and proofs, but over the years they have been lost, given away or worse, stolen.

So if forced to choose, which 10 Film Fun paintings would I most wish were still around? I've been grappling with this and to be honest, I've gone back and forth on several and my final (for now) list includes works from three categories. These are the iconic images that every Bolles fan would die for, other works from what could be called the high-period of Bolles art running from 1932 to 1939, and his early work from the 1920s. The first group simply must include the Bolles motorcycle girl from 1934, and his deco infused masterpiece from 1935. Both of these images are all over the web and each has been reworked by Greg Theakston in the guise of Bettie Page. If for no other reason you'd have to choose these because they would be the most valuable to ever hit the commercial market.

Another painting to include in this group would be the Martini girl from 1941. She's been printed on book covers, drafted into beer ads, ironed on t-shirts and otherwise had a very busy second career. The original painting survived at least for a while, and a long while back I posted a photo of it in the Film Fun home office. In the second category of great but not iconic examples it would be an punishable offense to leave our favorite cowgirl out to pasture. I've written several entries over the months on my efforts to corral this painting from 1934. Though there have been several false sightings I am convinced she is out there somewhere waiting to be rounded up. And just to make things interesting below is a photo of her in the original, circa 1940. She's now the called the Whoopee girl and serves official mascot of the Pioneer Days rodeo held annually in Odgen, Utah.

Our cowgirl is joined by her sister from south of the border. This lovely senorita debuted in 1934 and soon appeared in blotters, calendars and even on a box of chocolates. Sadly in each case efforts were made to remove Enoch's signature. Clearly the inspiration for this cover was either a model or a photo, she has none of the more mannered aspects that Bolles sometimes is criticized for. The composition is a variant of the Bolles "L" and in my mind is the best example of the pose Bolles ever did. It's got everything, a fabulous composition, the snappy costume and hat, drapery and of course, great footwear.

Another must have would be the Can-Can girl from 1936. I just love the pose and all that crinoline, or whatever it should be properly called. As good as Bolles is at legs he really outdid himself with this painting. The pose is supposed to be based on a model and I have a photograph of her, but won't bother posting it. This is one of those covers where the model was merely a setup for Bolles' imagination.

And now we turn to an earlier era of Film Fun covers which highlight how Bolles' work stands in contrast from the work of other pinup artists because it so clearly presents both a personal and cultural timeline. As you move through the decades you can see the evolution of his technique (like it or not) and the emerging style of the era, which Bolles so clearly captured both in fashion and figure. By contrast, examine a Petty from the 1950s and you may notice that she has changed little from examples produced in the late 30's. He relies on the same technique, the poses are familiar and even the outfit could have been borrowed from one of his Esquire girls. This is not a criticism; Petty created a girl who was wildly popular and he would have been foolish to mess with success. The same holds when comparing Vargas' work between Esquire and Playboy though it must be said that Playboy allowed him far more latitude (maybe longitude describes it better!) in how he posed and dressed his girls though not all of it was at his discretion (he long resisted pressure for poses that revealed pubic hair).

In contrast, not only did Bolles painting style change over time, but the physical appearance of his girls did as well. It's ironic that he got out of the of the business at the very moment the term pinup came into use, because one could argue that he had more to do in codifying the genre than any other artist. But I digress, so turning to his work from the 1920s many would place this cover from 1928 at the top of their list. She's the total package. The next cover, from 1929 is shows that Bolles can do both naughty and nice. And today's final entry comes from 1924, one of Bolles best years for Film Fun. It's anything but a typical Bolles cover and I guess you could call this his peeved category, which includes a fair number of other covers. No copper is going to get away with pushing her around.

So that rounds out my wish list, or does it? Actually I'm one short and that cover is not only my top Film Fun, it's my favorite out of every Bolles I've seen. If you'd like to meet her stop back in a few days.