Skirts Ahoy!

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

Alary's, near the windswept intersection of Jackson and Seventh streets in St. Paul, is the sort of place where regulars present and past are immortalized on bronzed nameplates along the lip of the bar. One such plate, in the corner farthest from the street entrance, reads, "The Pope." The barstool before it is usually empty, presumably so that His Holiness would find a place to sit should he come wandering in from cold afternoon outside. The place's proprietor, a big, amiable man named Al Baisi Jr., likes to sit across from the papal perch on these afternoons, when only a handful of patrons hunch against the bar, to smoke a cigar. The moniker, he explains, is that of the fellow who built the fixtures. "We call him the Pope of West Seventh Street," he says. "After the movie." And a thin stream of smoke wreathes its way around his big head and up toward the ceiling.

Alary's is quiet. It is so most days, except on Sunday afternoons during football season, when Chicago Bears fans crowd in to gnash their teeth and howl at the big-screen TV beyond the bar. Baisi Jr.'s father was an offensive guard for the Chicago Bears during the Forties heyday of the Monsters of Midway. Baisi Jr. has inherited the build of a lineman--albeit one who has allowed gravity to begin its work--and has a thick crest of black hair. In repose behind the bar, he looks a bit like a contemplative bear. Baisi Jr. takes obvious pride in his lineage, and the décor of his bar reflects it. The place looks, in fact, like a shrine: Pennants innumerable hang on the walls, punctuated by glossy posters of glowering men shaped like thick cuts of beef.

"He came up here because that's where my mom was from, and he started the bar in--let's see--1949. His partner was named Larry and he was named Al, so they called it Alary's. It was one of the only strip joints in St. Paul." Baisi Jr. puffs mightily on his cigar and the resultant cloud envelops his head momentarily. "My dad would bring me downtown, then send me to a movie. He didn't let me see the gals till I turned 17." When he did, Baisi Jr. liked the business so much that he stuck around for ten years, working. His father's dingy burlesque club was a favorite of judges and cops, he says, until the Saintly City decided to phase out its small blue-entertainment district. Alary's was the last to go, and the clubs never came back.

©1999 Benedikt Taschen Verlag, Gil Elvgren: All His Glamorous American Pin-Ups
©1999 Benedikt Taschen Verlag, Gil Elvgren: All His Glamorous American Pin-Ups

Like all fine old buildings, the one in which Alary's has come to rest has a secret history. Baisi Jr. began to take casual interest in it a few years ago, when a passer-through mentioned the place's significance, and he now takes some pleasure in pointing out to visitors the art deco façade or the fading advertisement on the building's side for the long-defunct paint store named Elvgren's. On a recent afternoon, Baisi Jr. had agreed to show me around, so after a while, we went back through a locked door and into a rattling cage elevator. Baisi Jr. went at a slow, even pace, trailing a sweet-smelling wake behind him.

The elevator, which was very old and which clanged with the comforting regularity of well-worn machinery, carried us to the fourth floor, where we found what we had come for: the childhood haunt of an artist named Gil Elvgren. It was a narrow space, cluttered at the rear with piles of rickety furniture and cardboard boxes. A bank of frosted windows along the street side let pale winter light into the front of the space. Baisi Jr. waved his cigar distractedly, coughed, and began a story. "This is where Elvgren would come up to work, up above his dad's paint store. I suppose the light up here was good. It's funny, you know. The guy who owned the building before me said Elvgren's dad used to come up here and find him painting girls. He'd tell him, 'Why waste your time? You'll never get anywhere doing this.'" Baisi Jr. let out a chuckle that turned into a puff of steam in the chilly loft.

A year or so after he moved Alary's to its new site, Baisi Jr. heard that the building's previous owner had found four of the paintings stashed in this room. "Those girly pictures are worth a lot of money now. Imagine that." He said it with a wistful glance around him, as though a few more of the unlikely treasures might still be buried somewhere among the chairs and battered sewing machines. Then he shook his head, stuck the cigar, which had gone unlit at some point, between his teeth, and squinted with what I took to be a mixture of curiosity and bemusement.

 

Gil Elvgren, "The Norman Rockwell of Cheesecake," painted girly pictures. It ought to be said, also, that he painted them better than any artist in America. In the 1950s heyday of pinup illustration, aspiring actresses would ride the train from Hollywood to present themselves at Elvgren's Chicago studio, vying for the chance to model for him and to be reinvented as an Elvgren Girl.

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.

Myrna Hansen, who started modeling for Elvgren at the age of 15, recalls that during one summer, she appeared on almost every billboard in Chicago. "The ads were for Coca-Cola and Wonder Bread and everything in between," she says. "Sometimes I had blond hair and green eyes, and sometimes I had black hair and blue eyes" (Hansen has brown hair and brown eyes).

For a time--she can't recall if it was 1952 or '53--Hansen had the most desired face in America. She'd asked for modeling lessons as a grammar-school graduation gift, she recalls, and was immediately sent out to Elvgren's studio on a call. The two struck up a friendship, and Elvgren used her in many of his best paintings. One, titled "A-Cute Injury," shows a girl--a hormonally gifted 15-year-old, to be sure--kneeling on an ice rink to inspect a bruise on what, for the sake of discretion, we will call her upper thigh. According to Hansen, she'd brought her own skates to one of the modeling sessions; Elvgren found his muse, and photographed her at once in the pose. "I just had to lift my skirt and say, 'ahh.'"

Hansen went on to become Miss Illinois, and, when another girl was disqualified, Miss Universe in 1954. She was immediately signed to a contract by Universal and became part of a stable of actors that included Rock Hudson and Clint Eastwood. "I went to see the Pacific Ocean, and I never came back," she says. "I landed right in the center of the beautiful old days of Hollywood." Not long after arriving, she recalls, she was cast in Man Without a Star with Kirk Douglas.

Hansen grew famous overnight and had forgotten all about the Chicago modeling sessions until a few years ago, when, while rummaging through a pile of antiquities at a swap meet, she came upon an old Elvgren calendar. "I said to the guy next to me, 'Hey, this is me.' He looked at me like I was crazy, then said, 'That's an Elvgren. Don't you know how famous he is?' I had no idea." She laughs quietly. "I just had no idea."

Elvgren had indeed become famous. A 1947 photograph, taken at a St. Paul convention of illustrious commercial illustrators, shows slicked black hair and a thin matinee-idol moustache on a bear of a man (one of his early instructors remarked that his hands were so enormous that it was surprising he could even hold a paint brush, much less do anything with it). Elvgren drank and smoked and liked guns. He believed in the old American dictum of working steadily and playing hard. And, according to the old American dictum's approved result, he was growing rich. Between commissions for calendar paintings and freelance advertising work, his son Drake estimates that Elvgren made around $70,000 a year at the height of his career. He installed a shooting range in the basement of his family's palatial home in Winnetka, Illinois. He sailed, hunted, and partied with an elite crowd of writers and illustrators, although he did not read anything beyond the daily newspaper and had no patience for artists whose ambition exceeded their discipline. He was, according to Drake, competitive and politically conservative, convivial and soft-spoken unless he had taken a drink.

Drake Elvgren, who is now an engineer and a born-again Christian living in Texas, remembers his father as a big, genial presence--"a cross between Jackie Gleason and Walter Cronkite." Though one Elvgren expert advised that the younger Elvgren's rebirth had made him somewhat reticent to discuss his father's profession, Drake proved quite the opposite: garrulous, and indeed, quite difficult to interrupt once he had begun talking. "One time, dad was picked to judge a Miss Dairy Land contest in Minnesota or Illinois or somewhere. He was considered an expert on pretty girls, you see. And he found what he thought was the perfect girl. Then she opened her mouth. It turned out she was an idiot. He once told me the hardest thing he ever had to do in his life was to not vote for her.

"The most important thing I remember about my dad," he continued, "was that he would treat people the same whether they were an artist or hauled garbage....He never had any prejudices. He didn't like politically correct attitudes. Or liberals. He didn't like Kennedy. He was just a regular-Joe type of guy."

According to Drake, Elvgren also felt some sense of longing for the legitimacy afforded "fine" artists. He was an illustrator, in other words, but he may have been one who secretly pined for the rarefied world of museums and galleries and critical canonization. In his later years, recalls Drake, while growing old in Florida, the elder Elvgren took his other son aside and, in a rare moment of unguarded confession, admitted that his pride had kept him from becoming the artist he knew he ought to have been. The pinup business had begun to dry up by the mid-Seventies, and his paintings went into attics and storerooms. Elvgren, who spent casually and saved even more casually, was nearly broke. A few years before his death in 1980, according to Drake, he confided to his son that he thought he'd sold himself short.

 

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."

Art Amsie, a lovely 72-year-old Virginian with a conversational talent for synonymous triplets, considers himself the professor emeritus, the elder statesman, and the foremost authority among Elvgren aficionados. He first came upon the artist's work "at the edge of puberty" in a Boston penny arcade where vending machines sold Mutoscope cards--popular postcard-sized prints--for two cents apiece. He remembers it now as a minor epiphany, and considers Elvgren the "number one artist of all time."

"How can you compare him to Leonardo da Vinci or Donatello or Raphael?" Amsie asks. "Well, you can't make a sexy-looking Madonna, see? There's this opposite or contradictory or paradoxical idea of blending sensuality and innocence. It's to be said that his girls were not whores, not like porno. It wasn't dirty, but arousing, titillating, exciting. Same as the old stripteases before they became topless and bottomless and everything-less. None of that crap and filth and dirt."

Amsie recalls an incident ten or fifteen years ago. While on the Key Bridge in Washington, D.C., he noticed a woman crossing ahead of him. It was a particularly windy day and the woman's skirt was blowing up, giving the commuters a view of her gluteal region. "It drove everyone wild," Amsie recalls. "And this was at a time when you could see all the--excuse me--pussies and penises you wanted. People like to be slightly naughty, you see, and voyeuristic. They still like women; they just don't want to be slapped in the face with it all the time. Young men in their 20s see Elvgren's girls and say, 'Wow, this is better than those--excuse me--wide-open beaver shots in Hustler.' They want to be a little curious."

Though Amsie began as a pubescent fan, he eventually met Elvgren in Sarasota and the two became fast friends--"drinking and shooting buddies." He remembers their first meeting as another epiphanic moment. "He came out of his studio and I yelled, 'Stand there.' It was like you see in some ancient masters, when the clouds part and the sun comes flowing down. It was like that, to bless our meeting. A chorus of a million heavenly angels singing an aria from Beethoven or Verdi."

Amsie breaks joyfully into an earthly approximation of said aria but is cut short by a bubbling cough. "It's like when you hold a bottle of Coca-Cola up to the sunlight and you can see the bubbles and it's sparkling and effervescent. That's the Elvgren girl!"

 

One local Elvgren enthusiast, a successful wildlife artist named Ron Van Gilder, lives an hour north of the Twin Cities, at the end of a winding driveway through fields of long prairie grass lightly dusted with snow. His home is hung with framed studies of women in various states of undress and the unblinking heads of moose and deer--he worked as a freelance taxidermist before his painting career took off. On a pale winter afternoon, when the sunlight crept hesitantly into Van Gilder's studio through the North window, the room felt a bit like a cozy hunting lodge. "I was 25 and just out of the service when I saw one of Elvgren's calendars. One of the pictures in particular just amazed me; it was called "Well Picked." I was taken aback. It's like you have your favorite Monet; I have my favorite Elvgren. It's still my favorite.

"I had the thought in the back of my mind when I got a couple of them that it would be nice to have a sample from each of the big pinup painters." Though they weren't very valuable at the time, Van Gilder continued, he realized that their simple loveliness would make them so in the future. He especially admired Elvgren's compositional prowess. "I didn't have the resources or the guts or whatever it would have taken to go watch the guy make a painting. You know, you'd love to watch him work and ask him, 'How did you do that?' or 'How did you do this?' It was possible. That's just not the way things worked out."

Van Gilder, who himself painted pinups for the magazine Gallery, is especially appreciate of Elvgren's technical expertise, and casts a mildly disdainful eye on those collectors who are drawn either by profit or lust. "Men can take [the paintings] a lot of different ways. Some guys want black nylons or a bit of underwear showing. It's personal taste. Me, personally, I never looked at them that way."

We went into a room off the studio, also hung with framed pinups, to look at Van Gilder's own collection, which includes the original "Well Picked." It was, as he had asserted, a technical marvel--a picture of a disarmingly comely young lady wading in a pond of Monet-esque water lilies at night. He pointed out how the warm darkness around the figure's head and a seemingly innocuous hanging branch in the background put the girl's face in soft-lit relief. From a few inches away, the apparently naturalistic coloring of the woman's skin and clothing is shown to be done in too-bright purples and yellow--a technique that, like Elvgren's "mayonnaise-like" application of oil paint, serves to give the finished picture an interior luminosity.

As Van Gilder pointed out the painting's intricacies in rhapsodic detail, his wife Holly came into the room and took a seat in a low-slung chair. "We'll be out at a restaurant," she said, "and Ron'll see a girl and say, 'She has an Elvgren face.'"

"Not every girl has it," Van Gilder explained. "I mean, Liz Taylor is a beautiful woman, but she doesn't have it. That's why we have pinups. They're an epitome, an ideal, a woman up on a pedestal."

"Maybe when she was younger?" his wife offered. "Think of her in National Velvet."

"No, she doesn't have the right kind of face." Van Gilder caught up with his previous thought. "It's an epitome. It goes back thousands of years to the Greeks, this celebration of beauty throughout history. With photography, these pinups may be the last things done by the hand of man. People don't always see that."

"Think of where people with money in New York City buy their art," Van Gilder's wife continued. "Artists with those funny names. And someone has to explain to [the customers] what it's a picture of."

"It all has to do with prejudice. There's all kinds of prejudice."

"What's more snobby than art people?"

"That's it!" Van Gilder exclaimed. "I'm getting there. People think it isn't good art because it was on a poster originally--"

"And you could buy it for 60 cents," his wife added.

"They want to think they know so much about art. But painting a good pinup takes no less work than Degas sitting in some Tahitian hut and painting for the love of it. Do the--what?--justify the means?"

"Ends."

"Right," he said. "Do the ends justify the means?"

"But Elvgren hasn't been around as long as Degas or Rockwell," Van Gilder's wife countered.

Van Gilder was on a roll, though. "That's why the elitists who've put this stuff in the museums worry me. I'm not going to say, 'Let's put all this calendar art at the Met.' But if they did, if they used this common-man art, they'd be scared by how many people would show up. People don't want to be put down when they go to a museum. They don't want someone telling them they're not smart."

"You're starting to sound like Jesse Ventura," his wife said.

"I mean, I like all kinds of art."

"He doesn't like Flemish art."

Van Gilder shrugged. "I don't like depressing stuff."

"You don't like Byzantine art, either."

Sidestepping the provocation to begin a debate on the merits of Byzantine art relative to those of American pinups, Van Gilder continued: "I used to see Elvgren calendars in a local gas station. Now, they're photographic and hidden behind the counter so they don't offend women customers. Maybe now women can finally accept that other women can be beautiful."

"Don't go there," his wife muttered. Van Gilder fell silent.

"You probably picked his favorite subject in the whole world," she explained. "It's our big dream that someday we're going to walk into a garage sale or antique sale somewhere and find that missing Elvgren."

From across the room the "Well-Picked" girl smiled on, deathless and pert inside her frame.

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