Monday, June 13, 2011

Why We Love (some) Pulp Art

The new post on Illustration Art, a provocative and free ranging site pecked over the question whether it was ok to like pulp art as in a guilty pleasure? Or should praise be reserved for efforts which provide emotional and intellectual stimulation of a higher order, say above the limbic system? The set-up is a straw man argument. It's like asking someone if she loves candy.  Answer: "Yes". "So does that include both Atomic Fireballs and Pierre Marcolini truffles?"  It seems unfair and even pointless to compare works of high art (in the 1920’s it was oddly referred to as ‘art-art’) with illustration art completed under brutal deadlines according to the dictates of an art director for an abhorrent assignment (a spicy horror story) in a highly competitive market where the final product is almost guaranteed to be poorly reproduced.  Funny thing about this, it wasn’t uncommon for the stories to be assigned to follow the art. I remember hearing Hugh Cave, the incredibly prolific pulp writer recount having been assigned to write a story based on a painting of a creepy goon sliding a body into a roaring furnace. He titled the story: “This is how we bake our dead!”

During the early days of the Golden Age of illustration there raged a similar debate about the merits of commercial art, but it pivoted on advertising art versus fine art. Ad companies contributed countless screeds to trade magazines such as The Inland Printer and The Poster advocating the virtues of advertising illustration, professing it was equal to—both in technique and emotional reward--classic examples of fine art. Yet to hedge their bets companies like Consolidated Sign of New York would occasionally blow up famous artworks and paste them on billboards, perhaps both to provide the public a visual breather and serve as a not very subtle art “lesson” (“Was that a Rembrandt or a Leyendecker I saw at 14th and Broadway?”). Those illustrators who felt maligned to be stamped as commercial artists sought upward mobility through the respectable escape-hatch of salon portraiture.

True enough, many pulp illustrators were not the most gifted of artists and some were downright hacks, but there were unsung talents who did with what they had to make ends meet. Consider that they toiled during the depression with poor pay among fierce competition over a shrinking market, while photography was inexorably shoving illustration art further into the margins. Many pulp artists, including Bolles--who was raising a family of seven children--had to produce three or four covers a month to stay afloat. Hugh Ward, one of the artists featured in the Illustration Art piece, was getting $50 a painting for some of his covers, and sometimes had to wait months for the check (this Ward painting recently sold at auction for over $143,000). I’m no fan of his Spicy Horror work, in no small part because he was too good at what he did. No artist was more effective at depicting sheer terror and menacing miscreants. His originals in my view are a bit disappointing; they look unfinished and even a bit rushed. But Ward knew precisely how they would look on the newsstand and he wasn’t about to waste an extra stroke on a detail that wouldn’t show. He also realized many of his paintings would end up printed in only three colors and I think he altered his pallet to exploit the atmospheric effect he could exploit by his knowledge of printing. In contrast, some of his art for Tattle Tales was surprisingly relaxed and naturalistic. There’s none of the sexual edginess or voyeurism so typical of that genre in this fabulous cover. Norman Saunders is another artist who comes to mind. His work for the smooshes was as flagrant—meaning successful---as any artist but he was amazingly adept at all the genres, westerns, war stories, adventure, sports, men’s mags and later gum cards including the cult favorite Wacky Packages. Was there any commercial artist who covered as much territory so competently? And then there was Earle Bergey, whose painting was featured at the beginning of the Illustration Art post. He was another artist comfortable with crossing genres who pretty much was the master of the science fiction universe throughout the 1940s and 50s. You might call his work clichéd but that would be wrong, the clichés came later from artists who borrowed or reworked his ideas to death. Bergey was also one of the few pulp artists to make the slicks, not just any fancy mag but the Saturday Evening Post.

So what about Bolles? His work could be charged with the typical crimes of other pulp artists. His rap sheet would include colors straight out of a gumball machine, overripe girls in the barest of coverings, simple compositions that appeared again and again, as well as poses and set-ups that dug deep into the threadworn grab bag of pinup clichés. I feel no need to defend his talent, imagination or originality here. Like other pulp artists he was far more adept than he gets credited for, and his work wasn’t limited to pulps and Film Fun. Bolles did illustrations for movies, travel posters, and produced scores of advertising art for major companies who also hired famous names such as Rockwell, Barclay, and Wyeth. And once and a while he produced work that transcended the base aspects of the pulp genre. As evidence, here appears what I feel is Bolles pulp masterpiece, a cover that appeared on the cover of a 1933 issue of Bedtime Stories, a notorious under the counter eventually hounded into extinction by the decency leagues and vice cops. Bolles probably made no more than $75 for this painting and assuredly was given a free hand to paint what he wanted. I very much doubt that the publisher, Henry Marcus came up with the idea of putting infamous women of the ages on the cover and even if he did, he likely had little of guidance to provide to Bolles the polymath. I’ve commented before about how oddly passive many of the expressions on these covers are but this one is entirely different. I can’t find any example of what was to be labeled pinup either before or after of a girl who expressed not mirth, embarrassment or even boredom, but menace laced with contempt?  Is this any way to sell a magazine?  Take a look at the Armstrong version. Technically it’s amazing, especially the treatment of the charger. The Bolles version of Salome is so removed from Armstrong's rendition that it would be easy to conclude they read different "books".  Not that they didn't have other battles over territory (another story).

Finally, what are we to make of Bolles? What would motivate an artist who likely didn’t earn a nickel more than $75 for a painting he didn’t dare sign or put himself at risk for merely trying to purchase a copy.  Whatever provoked him to produce a work of such complex malevolence for a trashy magazine whose editor would be pleased by virtually any display of reasonably rendered flesh?


Daniel [] said...

There's an old saying, “Talent does what it can; genius does what it must.” This saying dates to an era when “genius” held more of its earlier meaning of a driving spirit (equivalent to the Greek “δαιμων”), and the point was and remains that, while talent determines one's best effort, those with genius are compelled to do what they do.

It's not insightful to say that whoever is compelled is compelled, but it is sometimes useful to say that some particular person is compelled as opposed to not being compelled.

Given the arc of his life, it is plausible that Bolles' æsthetic commitments were in some sense and to some degree involuntary.

Daniel [] said...

BTW, I draw your attention to the fact that Bolles might be having a laugh at the reader or especially perhaps at the editor with that cover to Gay Parisienne.

The book in the image is held up-side-down, but it would presumably be in large part a picture book. Even an illiterate would see that the pictures were up-side-down.

However, as many of your readers will know, but I'd guess that the typical 1937 reader of GP would not, and probably its editor would not, it can be very useful to hold an image up-side-down in order to judge its composition.

Rather than being a fool, the model would seem actually to know something about art.

BarryO said...

I very much enjoyed this article. Thanks for posting.

darwination said...

The Salome cover is fantastic. Thanks for putting up a large image. Bolles can really give his girls the most uninviting expressions yet make them oh-so-inviting.

I enjoyed the post very much (along with the Illustration art post) and do get a kick out of such justifications. Putting aside the fact that Bolles (and many others) in the pulp field were indeed talented artists and composers, it is also OK to like bad art. Can an artist lacking technique still create a powerful painting? Sure. The Illustration Art post points to a quality of "ethical clarity" in pulp art while your mention of feeling creeped out by the Spicy covers points to something opposite -that often pulp art involves the onlooker in some sadistic or lascivious positions. The covers on the pulps were designed to reach out and grab you one way or another, and they still do.

Jack R said...

So true. These artists were doing their jobs and the assignments weren't easy, either compositionally or in terms of subject matter.

GWR Pinups said...

Great post!

wentworth said...

Thanks for the post! You note that Bolles had 7 kids. Has anyone tracked down his family? Maybe there are stories, letters, etc waiting to be shared. I note one commentator to your posts says she is his granddaughter? Bolles life has been portrayed as a mystery, yet with all these relatives there must be more info on him in family lore...

Jack R said...

Yep, I tracked down the family history and got in contact with his last surviving child about a decade ago (who sadly has since passed away) and have met many other members of the Bolles clan.