Skirts Ahoy!

How the master of cheesecake art lifted a dress and uncovered an American madonna

The Elvgren Girl is at once distinct and anonymous. She is slender, tall, and immaculately coiffed. She is white--not just white, but Donna Reed white. She has, as the artist intended, the face of the girl next door and the body of a nubile Venus. Her lips are formed into a perfect, eternal "oh." Her eyebrows arch delicately over lavishly lashed peepers. Her breasts, invariably perky, look as though they might float away if left unguarded. Décolletage is the order of the day. The areola, though much alluded to, makes no formal appearance. Likewise, the striptease stops at a prescribed point at midthigh, just high enough so that the lacy mechanics of the garter are clearly visible (the Elvgren Girl wears stockings whether she is in an evening dress, an apron, or a cowboy outfit). Her legs, you will notice, are six inches longer than anatomically plausible; she is, quite literally, half leg. The other half of her charms is roughly apportioned between midriff and shoulders. She wears high heels even when she is swinging from a trapeze. The Elvgren Girl's fashion sense is impeccable, but she does not know how to dress for cold weather, and her clothes tend to fall off at the most inopportune moments.

Consider "In the Red," a prototypical painting from Elvgren's middle years at the St. Paul calendar company Brown and Bigelow--one of the prints included in a new monograph, Gil Elvgren: All His Glamorous American Pin-Ups (Taschen, $39.99), by Charles Martignette and Louis Meisel. A woman--a brunette who bears a striking resemblance to Lucille Ball--is straddling the top of a ladder, bent slightly at the waist and holding her skirt above the thigh so that the tops of her nylons are visible. She is slathering red paint on a wall and has apparently painted herself into a corner. The look on her face is one of mild consternation: lips pursed, eyes wide. She is the classic damsel in distress.

The painting is, at first glance, no masterpiece, yet it does reveal a masterly sense of composition. The flat, bright negative space behind the woman's figure accentuates the white of her outfit and especially the parallel planes of her breast and the top of her skirt. The white kerchief covering her hair attracts attention to the face, and then disperses it down her figure toward another plane of brightness at the top of her thigh. The ladder, though crudely painted, forms an acute angle with her outstretched leg, enticing the eye upward toward the apex of the leg and skirt. It is, with some imaginative squinting, the pose of a dancer in midpirouette. It is also ingeniously designed to draw the viewer to the one anatomic zone that both the painter and his subject are reluctant to expose. Elvgren was savvy enough to know where his audience's interest lay. He knew, too, that he could entice them by teasing rather than revealing. He was no provocateur, but a salesman.

 

Elvgren sold an American fantasy, but to the extent that his personal life was his public persona, he was also an advertisement for it. His beginnings were ordinary enough: He was born in St. Paul in the spring of 1914, the son of a prosperous Swedish immigrant. He attended University High School, and upon graduation eloped with his high school sweetheart, a petite beauty named Janet Cummins. The young man drifted toward architecture and spent some time at both the University of Minnesota and the Minneapolis Art Institute. Finding the course of study unfulfilling, however, he began doing sketches of pretty young men and women for fashion catalogs. He secured a major commission to paint the Dionne quintuplets, a gaggle of precocious French Canadian children who were faddishly popular at the time, and his course was set. He moved to Chicago, finished art school, and began doing pinup illustrations for prominent advertising companies like Louis F. Dow.

The Second World War was a boom time for the pinup trade. Elvgren, who had by then established his reputation with the St. Paul calendar giant Brown and Bigelow, painted pinup images that could be folded easily into mailing pouches for the lonely boys overseas. The concept was that idealized, semi-wholesome images of the girl next door would inspire soldiers to acts of heroism (and, one must assume, self-manipulation). Elvgren stayed out of the war himself because of a persistent case of gout (although he did train local guard members in firearms use). Neither was he recruited into the propaganda effort as was Norman Rockwell. Nevertheless, Elvgren did offer his own vision of a sexed-up Rosie the Riveter in an ad for General Electric's war effort campaign. The picture, of a smiling blond woman in a flattering Red Cross uniform, bears the caption "She Knows What Freedom Really Means." It is, unlike Rockwell's "Four Freedoms," both an appeal to wartime virtue and a corporate pitch for patriotic patronage.

At various points in his career, Elvgren painted advertisements for Coca-Cola, Lucky Strike cigarettes, NAPA auto parts, beer, antacids, tires, and just about everything else that could conceivably be associated with a picture of a pretty girl. Elvgren's Brown and Bigelow work was of two general types: "flip" calendars featuring twelve generic images, and themed advertising work meant for billboards, playing cards, or complimentary calendars sent to clients. Many of these creations were templates with a blank space reserved for the advertising tag, so that a laundromat and toothpaste company would often end up with the same coquettish spokesmodel hawking their services.

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