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December 04, 2007

DVD Journal: "Pulp Fiction Art"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --


Given its title and its publicity material, you might expect the documentary "Pulp Fiction Art" to comprise a quick intro to the era of pulp-magazine fiction followed by interviews and encounters with, and bios and appreciations of, the artists who created the era's visuals. The film turns out instead to be more of a jumble than that: a zig-zaggy, 55 minute-long survey of the pulp fiction era generally, with some minutes with the artists (Norman Saunders, Ernest Chiriacka, a few others) crammed in here and there.

But as modest as the film is -- and, yes, it did feel a bit like an opportunity lost -- I enjoyed it anyway. The overview it provides of the pulp-magazine era may resemble a disorganized term-paper, but it's still informative -- and newbies to the material will learn quite a lot. Many of the interviewees (especially some collectors and fans) are amazingly articulate about and appreciative of the art. And if the time the film spends with the actual artists and illustrators is 'way too small, that's still a lot better than no time spent on them at all, which is the treatment you'll find accorded to pulp-fiction artists in most histories of American art of the 20th century.

Jamie McDonald, who made the film, never loses track of his subject's central irony: Although this really was an amazing episode in American visuals, almost no one was aware of the fact at the time. Highbrows of course turned up their noses. The artists thought they were doing mere commercial work, cranking out tawdry paintings for a sleazy market. Many of them had their sights focused on higher, fine-arty things; they often didn't even bother to sign their pulp work. Yet these lewd, exploitative images are turning out to be the art that they'll be remembered for.

It's sad to be reminded of the fact that nearly all of the original paintings were simply thrown away once they'd been reproduced. Today the work of people like Rafael DeSoto and Margaret Brundage is much loved, enthusiastically enjoyed, and widely influential -- and collectors pay big bucks for the handful of originals that still do exist. As for the self-consciously significant work of that era? Well, some of it's still enjoyed too.

Since the film is so skimpy and modest, it's a little hard to recommend a purchase. But why not put the film near the top of your Netflix queue? I'm very fond of this book, which includes lots of excellent reproductions of pulp fiction art. H.J. Ward, who specialized in illustrations for the "spicy" market and who made the image at the top of this posting, is a particular favorite of mine. (I found the image above at this website.) Someday I'm going to buy a copy of this book about the art of the "girly pulps."

Semi-related: I wrote about the film "The Notorious Bettie Page" here; Donald wrote about pin-up art here and here; Friedrich wrote about pin-up master Gil Elvgren here.



posted by Michael at December 4, 2007


Gosh I love that illustration. It touches so many hot buttons in one little, but very clearly articulated space. I love cubism too, but this illustration makes many cubist paintings look like they're not working very hard.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 4, 2007 10:49 PM

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