American Pin-Up Girls
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Pin-Up art as a genre may not be what you think of when you look at these images from the past. Some may see them as pre-pornography. Others may view them as the exploitation of women. On the other hand, you may view them as the mirror for the emancipation of women and their sexuality. They also represent the all-American girl next door with her juxtaposition of sexuality and innocence. I tend to view them as all of the above. While it is true that they were the beginning of the sexploitation of women for advertising, I can't help but see the beauty in the artists' eye. Whether in the eye of the painter or photographer, I see the average American woman inhabiting a time when the possibility of a life of glamour existed, even if only in your own kitchen.
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Imagine this time in American history. The 1940s through the 1950s in the United States may just have been the "Greatest Generation's" glory days. The G.I. bill made the possibility of home-ownership a reality for the average family. Consumerism became the religion that drove the economy. The "baby-boom" created an aura of possibility that permeated the society. This was the time of the American pin-up illustrators. America's girl-next-door was reprinted on millions of magazines, calendars, and bill-boards. Inside locker-room doors, G.I.'s barracks, in every garage, restaurant and night-club, movie-house and theater, she was there. Before political correctness existed, the pin-up artist created an image that permeated the popular culture. It wasn't long before the burgeoning advertising industry recognized the power of the illustrator's drawings on the American public.
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One of the most well-known and best-regarded pin-up artists in this genre was Alberto Vargas. He was born in Peru and studied in Europe before moving to the United States in 1916. He worked for the famous Ziegfield Follies and for the young Hollywood movie industry during his early career. During World War II, his pin-up art for Esquire Magazine, known as "Varga Girls" became popular with the troops overseas. Their iconic images of American beauty became an important morale-booster for the weary troops. Adaptations of the "Varga Girls" were used to paint the nose-art of United States planes during WWII. After the war, a dispute with Esquire over the use of the term "Varga Girls" forced Vargas' hand. He left Esquire, the premiere men's magazine at the time. He struggled financially until Playboy hired him in the 1960s. At Playboy, the simple change from "Varga Girls" to "Vargas Girls" put him back in charge of his own art-work.
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The Steven-Gross Advertising Agency of Chicago was directed by artist Haddon Sundblom. Coca-Cola was one of their major clients. Under Sundblom, famous illustrators such as Gil Elvgren used the medium of oil and created layers of glowing color for the pin-up girls in their ads. Al Buell, Harry Ekman, Bill Medcalf and Joyce Ballantyne were all on staff. This style, known as The Mayonnaise School, due to the thick layers of oil paint, became synonymous with American advertising. The warmth and luminescence of these illustrations captured the hearts of post-war American culture.
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Along with the realism of the Mayonnaise School, other artists such as Earl MacPherson, Joyce Ballantyne, T.N. Thompson, Fritz Willis, Freeman Elliot, K.O. Munson, and Ted Withers, to name a few, used the medium of pastels and colored pencils to create a "sketch book" effect that attracted advertiser's attention. Brown & Bigelow, the Remembrance advertising business, created the promotional products for small businesses that permeated the country. They successfully sold promotional items using both the realistic and sketch effects.
Pin-Up art as an American cultural phenomenon is interesting because of the ripple effect that these illustrators had on the popular culture. What is fascinating to me is that these illustrators were not simply responding to the culture via opinion polls and marketing surveys. They were actually creating images that the culture could respond to. I see them in the same light as the Hollywood writers and directors of the day. Whether or not their view of the culture was correct, we can still appreciate their vision through their luminescent glasses.
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