Skirts Ahoy!

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

 

During his lifetime Elvgren attracted thousands of admirers, including, not surprisingly, many of the soldiers, salesmen, mechanics, and boys who kept his calendars behind their desks or beneath their mattresses. Elvgren's fans, somewhat more surprisingly, also included Norman Rockwell, then, as now, considered America's preeminent illustrator. The two met at a Brown and Bigelow convention in St. Paul; a black-and-white photograph shows them together--Elvgren, a dashing, plump figure in a glossy suit, and Rockwell, a gaunt and intense man haunting the edge of the frame. In the ultimate homage to his friend, Rockwell incorporated Elvgren's work into one of his own paintings. This classic image of Rockwellian Americana--a scene set in a rural general store--features one of Elvgren's Brown and Bigelow calendars hanging on the wall. It is more than a measure of Rockwell's respect for Elvgren; Rockwell painted middle America as he saw it, and Elvgren calendars did indeed decorate the walls of rural general stores. Rockwell was a topographer of America's human landscape, and at midcentury, Elvgren's girls were part of it.

The recent spate of Rockwell retrospectives and the critical reevaluation prompting them make comparisons with Elvgren almost unavoidable. Both men considered themselves "illustrators," eschewing the traditional laurels of the art world, and indeed the very idea of high art. Both were, first and foremost, narrators. If Rockwell's paintings told short stories, however, Elvgren's forte was the visual one-liner ("Did you hear the one about the blonde...").

His paintings were mininarratives, a genre so codified that it acquired a name: "the compromised cutie." The genre's only requirement was that the painting include a girl who, through some benign accident of fate, has her skirt pulled up above the thigh. Within those parameters, Elvgren was as resourceful in his composition as Rockwell. Construction cranes lifted skirts; the wind was a common culprit; a mischievous Pekingese plotted to hike the dress of his coquettish mistress; occasionally a woman would unwittingly nail the tail of her skirt to a wall. Inventive as Elvgren was, his imagination with regard to couture-hoisting calamity was not bottomless. Drake Elvgren recalls his father gathering the family around the breakfast table and offering a five-dollar reward to the person who could concoct the best scenario for getting a woman's skirt up.

The compromised cuties, though varying in the details of their distress, have much in common. The Elvgren Girl is almost always shown in partial profile and, though she is aware of her predicament and of the viewer, she is not entirely in on the joke. One painting, done for Brown and Bigelow in 1948 and titled "Jeepers, Peepers," places its voyeur audience outside an open window, looking into a bathtub filled with just enough water to obscure the occupant's hindquarters. She has draped a towel over her chest and has turned toward the window so that her back is provocatively arched. Her face--dominated by red lips pursed into a small circle--registers surprise but not shock. The implications are clear: This is not a woman who minds men staring at her naked body through a window. She is coy, even in the moment of total exposure. In mild opposition to the daunting sexuality of real-life pinup icons like Betty Page, Elvgren's fantasy molded the feminine mystique in any image the artist saw fit.

The image Elvgren saw fit to bestow was, by and large, that of an objet d'art. His women, painted in colors two shades too bright for real life, exist in a hermetically sealed world filled only with simple domestic props--barbecue grills, bathtubs, ironing boards, guns, and lingerie--and defined by simple rules: Girl's clothes come off, girl likes it. There are no men--a potentially threatening intrusion--and no sense of female agency: Things happen to Elvgren's girls. In much the same way as their art moderne furnishings and finely crafted domestic utensils, these women were meant to be beautiful accouterments to the material life of Middle America.

"There's no question that pinups were part of the American fabric from the Thirties through the Fifties," asserts Charles Martignette, one of the nation's preeminent pinup collectors and an expert on the subject of American illustration (among his many publishing credits: Martignette co-authored, with Louis Meisel, the most recent Elvgren tome). "These calendars sold no less than a million copies each, so there was great exposure. Plus, Esquire, which had writers like Ernest Hemingway and many of the great photographers of the day, brought pinups into the living rooms of Middle America. Glamour art had enormous appeal to American men. It appealed to American women just as much."

"Why?"

"Women fantasized about being those girls. They'd look at the models and think, 'This could be me!'"

 

Although it may never show up in a museum, Elvgren's work has a small but zealous following among collectors of midcentury erotica. The voracious demand for the artist's paintings has pushed the price of some Elvgren originals to upward of $50,000 (their value tends to go up in direct correlation to the amount of skin shown: Nudes are coveted, lingerie pictures precious, and portraits of women in formal evening wear relatively economical). The collectors themselves are a diverse bunch, united only by a general distaste for nonrepresentational art and the shift in aesthetic values it implies. Louis Meisel, a New York-based pinup art dealer, summarizes the position: "In the Eighties, contemporary art came in, and all of a sudden it was like 'You don't have to know anything, just go out and express yourself.' Then came all this multicultural, p.c. stuff and the art world went to hell."

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