Gil Elvgren

Anchors A-Wow, 1968 (I have borrowed the images from  ElvgrenPinup.com, a stunning site with the best selection of Elvgren I’ve ever seen in one place. It’s a great source for collectors to pick up his work. The Automat is in no way affiliated with this site; we just know cool stuff when we see it.)

Today we are not changing the artistic landscape; we are not challenging society; we are not interested in sociology or intellectualism; and we are absolutely not catering to anyone’s feminist concerns. No sir, today we are checking out the gams of the girl next door, and what a pair of legs they are, yowzer!

In a world where one false keystroke can lead a child to a universe of pornography, it is hard to believe there was ever a time when pictures like these were considered daring and racy. But there was, and they were. Sort of.  Pin-ups had been around for quite a while by the time the Elvgrens and Pettys and Vargases started appearing in magazines and on calendars. It was a pretty natural outgrowth from the Muscha posters to the Gibson Girls and on again to the peculiarly American form of the pin-up.

The most famous of all pin-ups was, of course, this one with Betty Grable from World War II. But while ladies excused the lonely soldier who kept this particular photograph to remind him of home, they were less quick to accept the other, often far racier photos which naturally made the rounds. Nobody wanted their boyfriends mooning over Myrna Loy or Veronica Lake; they were real women against which the girl back home could not compete. But an illustrated girl was different. No one, no actress, no singer, and no model could match up to these girls. So let the men have their fun. They were a kind of acceptable fantasy for the time, and rare was the garage or barber shop that didn’t have a Brown & Bigelow Calendar hanging on the wall.

For me, Elvgren was the best of the pin-up artists. He was the cliché American. He married his high school sweetheart with whom he stayed married until her death. He started his career early and painted so many pictures over the years that the number isn’t even realistic to report. People hear it and assign it the Shakespeare effect, the one that says, “Nobody can do that.”

Fresh, 1949

His pin-ups are distinctive for their implications of story. His ladies are more likely to be interacting, to be doing something, and usually something that shows a little leg, but at least they aren’t simply draped open-mouthed across a bench all the time. His colors are eye-poppingly bright and lively; his ladies are cute and saucy with more than a trace of Donna Reed decency, rarely lewd. For me they are among the strongest nostalgia-inducing symbols extant; their style and colors and settings speak so strongly of a post-World-War America that bristled with energy and opportunity.

And to my childish eyes, there were real Elvgren girls to be found, too. I always thought Elizabeth Montgomery from Bewitched looked like she’d just stepped out of one of his pictures. (As long as we’re throwing around magical television characters, Barbara Eden also looked like an Elvgren girl.) And yes, it was damned unfair to all the real women who could never hope to match that kind of superficial ideal, but how is that any different from today’s emphasis on the Ryan Goslings and Robert Downey Junior physiques brought to you courtesy of expensive surgeries and intense personal training schedules. So long as we all know it’s silly, let it go.

We all of us waste a lot of energy trying to live up to things we thought were cool when we were young. But there is a difference between being the poseur, acting like any minute you may have to re-join Cheap Trick, and allowing yourself to simply lie back and reminisce about the things you miss and the things you loved. These simple illustrations are tied more often than not to other, sweeter memories of neighborhoods and businesses and people we had forgotten until just now. Indulge while you can.

There are worse things than pouring oneself a hot mug of Ovaltine and snuggling up next to this girl right here. (My apologies to the bear.)

Bear Facts (A Modest Look; Bearback Rider) 1962

 

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5 Responses to Gil Elvgren

  1. CMStewart says:

    I’ve never understood the Grable pic. Yes, she’s pretty. She looks like my grandmother, especially the hairdo. But what is it about this particular pic? The pose? The expression? Or was it simply that bare legs really were that racy back then?

    I understand the others (apologies to the bear). 🙂

  2. Lee Broom says:

    With the onset of vulgarity we said goodbye to subtlety and with it curiosity, a fundamental component of human existance.

    • foxpudding says:

      Agreed. The older we get the more we miss nuance and mystery. For all the bravery of much modern artistic expression, too little of it seems made for grown-ups.

  3. Patricia Snyder says:

    Right after the war there were ads for silverware – Rogers, I think. The illiustrations looked very much Elvgren. The fellows were all coming home and the girls were going to marry and have the silverplate. The guys were dreamboats too, of course. I always liked the Varga and the Petty girls even though I’m not a guy.

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