Monday, 1 August 2011


A fantastic exhibition has just closed at New York's Society of Illustrators. I mean fantastic in both senses of the word, for its subject matter and its quality, in the latter case even though I didn't get to see Pulp Art: The Robert Lesser Collection. But as I did, you can view part of it at the Society of Illustrators website here, and because some of Lesser's collection has been donated to the wonderful New Britain Museum of American Art, you can find out more at their website here. Best of all, a link from the NBMAA's site linked to this Robert Lesser collection gallery, often showing the original art and the magazine covers side by side, which shows the full range of pulp art—everything from Argosy to Zeppelin Stories, with bug-eyed monsters, costumed heroes, and flying aces in between. In that slide show I found the painting by Richard Lillis pictured to the right; years ago I bought a poster of it at the now-defunct Gallery Pierre Boogaerts on the Rue Vieille du Temple in Paris, and it has hung in my offices ever since. has adorned my offices for years. For which magazine it was painted, or if it was ever used, is something no one knows; perhaps it languished unused and then was disposed of with other original art which the pulp publishers tended not to value.

But they should have. Even with my limited viewing, a couple of paintings stood out. One was a cover by J Allen St John for a 1933 issue of Weird Tales featuring Jack Williamson's Golden Blood, which looked so good I went and ordered a copy of the 1964 Lancer paperback edition, whose cover is a homage by Ed Emshwiller, who's a very different kind of artist. I'm pretty sure I've never read it, either! Back in 1999, when I reviewed Lesser's seminal book Pulp Art for Headpress, along with Frank Frazetta's Icon; I pointed out that St John was a major influence on Frazetta, who took some of the impressionist quality out and put more dynamism in, but St John influenced almost everyone working in the fantasy/adventure field.

So I was familiar with St. John, but the painting that really floored me was a cover by someone I didn't know, Hubert Roberts. It's from the April 29, 1939 issue of Wild West Weekly and shows ominously dark birds perched in the bare branches of a tree. But as you follow the line of the lowest branch, you're led to the head of a man hanging from a rope wrapped around the limb. It's both dramatic and chilling, remarkably subtle for the pulps, one of the best pulp covers I've ever seen.

When I discovered the show I also I stumbled upon a lovely blog entry by the artist AE Kieren, about hanging the work, and was floored to see his photo of 'The Pirate Of Wall Street' being hung. It's a remarkable painting done for a cover of Argosy in 1931 by Paul Stahr. I remembered writing a piece for the Financial Times some time ago which sold off the back of this picture (what secret master of the universe could resist it?) about an exhibition at Illustration House in Spring Street.

So I dug up the FT article, and remembered I'd got Roger Reed's name wrong; in those days I was still phoning in my copy and the copy taker got his name as Robert. It's taken me 15 years to correct that error—though as I pointed out to him in my apology to him then, I did get it right in Headpress 20, when I mentioned his excellent essay which appeared in Lesser's Pulp Art.

THE ART OF PULP FICTION (Financial Times, 15 March 1996)

The body of a woman is being hoisted out of the water. Her red dress clings to her voluptuous figure. In the foreground, a swarthy man watches, submerged except for his head and one arm clinging to an anchor cable. His point of view becomes yours. Painted by Robert Stanley in 1951 for the cover of a paperback reissue of Dashiell Hammett's Blood Money (a combining of 'The Big Knockover' and '$106,000 Blood Money' into a novel), this is only one of many striking images on view in "Pulps and Paperbacks: Sensational Art from the 20s to the 50s", an exhibition at Illustration House in New York through March.

'"Go for the jugular" was their motto' explains Roger Reed, the organiser. 'You had to grab the attention of the browser at the newsstand.' If a curvy dame was good, a diagonal damsel in distress was better. 'Diagonals get your attention more than straight lines,' says Reed. 'A whole generation of B actresses developed their sultry poses based on that lean.' Sure enough, in Rudy Nappi's cover for Unfaithful, a Diana Dors-lookalike gives her come-on to a slick hepcat smiling through his cigarette.

'A gun was good, but a gun going off was better,' smiles Reed. The hard-boiled look was everything. Hardboiled meant being able to resist the allure of those diagonal sirens. George Gross was a master of the cheap femme fatale. His cover for A Girl Called Joy shows a woman on a doctor's examination table, diagonally, of course. Her blouse is open nearly to the waist, her skirt rides up to show her slip. Poor doctor. In contrast, Gross' cover for Harry Whittingham's Violent Night shows a woman in a similar pose, but without the threat. She is on a slab in the morgue. A hard-boiled cop in a raincoat is talking with the coroner. He's seen it all before. The scene is lit to make the corpse seem alluring, even in death. Needless to say, these magazines were aimed at men.

Part of their lesson was dames are dangerous. It's hard to miss the point in Gross' outre cover for Love Me And Die by Day Keene. A couple embrace passionately as a huge blue hand descends as if to crush them; love me and die, it's saying. The artwork reflected both the marketplace and the changing style of American detective stories. The covers remind you of Raymond Chandler saying Hammett had taken murder out of the parlour and put it back in the hands of people who really committed murders. Examples from Black Mask in 1932 and Scotland Yard Magazine in 1931 reflect the cool design of smart drawing rooms. Black Mask, originally edited by H.L. Mencken, may have thought of itself as upmarket, but soon magazines like Dime Detective boasted darker, more threatening scenes. Crime had been glamorous in the Roaring Twenties, but in the chaotic world of the Depression it became more threatening, and headed downmarket. This evolved into the noir style in the 40s, but by the late 1950s, the shadows were disappearing: lines are cleaner again, colours cooler. Once again crime is discreet, outside the mainstream of a seemingly peaceful society.

The artists churned this stuff out. There is a chilling echo of this in Rafael deSoto's cover of an artist frantically painting the portrait of a dead matron. The magazine cover itself shows him dipping his brush in her blood; the original oil has been painted over to lose that image. Amazingly, most of these paintings are large-scale oils, pained on canvas. This size was not demanded for reproduction. 'It was more a convention,' says Reed. 'But the attitude of the publishers and most of the artists was that this stuff was junk. Magazines sold original art for a dollar. The artists looked at it as a stepping stone to slick magazines, but they didn't think of it as art. It wasn't until later they started working on board, and in smaller scale.'

One man who did reach the slicks, and book illustration, was J. Allen St. John, who is featured with a cover for an Edgar Rice Burroughs-type adventure (man battles giant scorpion while armored woman is trapped in giant spider web, all rendered in delicate pastel tones). St. John's is the costliest work on display,but pride of place is given to an amazing cover by Paul Stahr. "The Pirate of Wall Street" cackles over his stock ticker, flintlock pistol in his red sash. With brush strokes bold as a pirate's slashing sword, this is Reed's particular favourite. 'We're only a few blocks north of Wall Street,' laughs Reed. 'I'm amazed this hasn't found a wall in some arbitrager's office yet.'

Illustration House 96 Spring Street New York 10012 (212) 966-9444

Pulp Art: The Robert Lesser Collection
Society Of Illustrators, 28 East 63rd Street
New York, NY 10065-7392, (212) 838-2560
2 June- 30 July 2011

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