Peter Driben (1908 – 1968)
In an age, on the one hand, of renewed, anti-sexual Puritanism and, on the other, of freely available Internet pornography the names of Peter Driben (1908 – 1968), Gillette Elvgren (1914 – 1980), Earl Moran (1893 – 1984), Alberto Vargas (1896 – 1982), George Petty (1894 – 1975), and Earle K. Bergey (1908 -1985) are largely forgotten although from the late 1920s through the mid-1960s they held a place in the American popular imagination and not only among males. Notoriety attached itself to these men because they produced the cover-art for a plethora of what went by the name of “glamour magazines,” with titles such as Wink, Flirt, Eyeful, and Beauty Parade, to list only a few. Unlike Playboy and its later offshoots, which would drive them from the newsstands, the “girlie mags” featured no nudity, but limited themselves to what might be called the scantily clad or, on occasion, the accidentally scantily clad – young women in lingerie, bathing-suits, tennis outfits, and short skirts who sometimes by mischance display in public more limb than they would intend. Whereas the interiors of these periodicals used black-and-white photography, the house always printed the covers in bright polychrome. Often the poses are humorous. The young woman is overburdened with packages, her shorts have come unbuttoned, and she bends her body and pins her elbows against her hips to keep her culottes from slipping away. From the expression on her face, however, her plight and embarrassment communicate themselves, and her struggle to maintain dignity becomes sympathetic. Ice-skating and roller-skating accidents sometimes occasion a revelatory maladroitness, but the revelation obeys strict limits. Men never enter the picture. The artist invariably portrays the female twenty-something as independent and as going – playfully, of course, but sometimes with bad luck – about her own business. If she flaunted her comeliness, which qualifies as exceedingly comely, it would be in private and with an excusable girlish vanity.
Peter Driben (1908 – 1968)
Others would describe the art of the glamour painters somewhat differently, even while appreciating its achievement. Dian Hanson, writing in The Little Book of Pin-Up – Driben (2015), opines that “Driben’s girls couldn’t really be called ‘good,’ as in ‘good girl art,’ a common synonym for pin-up” because “their costumes were consciously trashy, their heels whorishly high, and their thighs just far too voluptuous.” In her companion volume dedicated to Elvgren (2016), Hanson writes how “his genius was in maintaining each model’s individuality while perfecting her face and figure, yet somehow keeping her attainable.” Hanson perhaps too much conflates the pin-up cover-art per se with its vehicle, the magazine. The contents, as advertised in print on the cover, correspond to the burlesque. The black stockings hung from garters, the brassieres and negligees definitely elicit a fetish-driven voyeurism. The captions, usually in the form of clumsy puns, reinforce the judgment of a basic lasciviousness. All the same – Hanson’s term, “attainable,” applies much more readily to the photographic interiors of Beauty Parade and all the rest than to the painterly efforts of Driben, Elvgren, and their compeers. The covers, as previously mentioned, rigorously exclude men. The interiors let men, gangly ones and badly dressed, strut onstage, where, in the burlesque style, they leer with bulging eyes and plead gauchely for attention. Yet the women, whom the text assigns to roles like “exotic dancer” and “strip-tease artist,” rebuff these awkward sallies. The photographic models nevertheless give an impression of availability. No doubt but many were actual burlycue dancers and escort girls. Robert Harrison published his bevy of periodicals out of New York City, after all, a place as soulless in 1945 as it is today.
One might therefore distinguish between the low comedy (lowest-of-low) of the photographic interior matter of Flirt or Eyeful and the humor of the cover-art whether the painter is Driben, Elvgren, Moran, or Bergey. The term humor offers itself because it permits not only a non-scapegoating hence condoling reaction, with an impulse to assist, but also because, in its archaic usage, it means an ingredient of life. The vision of the cover girl motivates the blood; it increases the vitality of the viewer. It does this by partaking in an ideal, but not fully. In Eros and the Mysteries of Love: the Metaphysics of Sex (1969), in the chapter on “Phenomena of Transcendency in Profane Love,” Julius Evola discusses the disturbing power of idealizations, especially when the subject superimposes an idealization on a real-world object. In such a case the female object of the male erotic urge “does not acquire a different quality through real communication with a higher plane,” but she “usurps the attributes belonging to that plane by saturating them with the simple, fortuitous human element.” The male fantasizes in the female an “unrealistic moral value that nobody can be expected to live up to.” The danger of a neurotic detour adheres strongly to this situation, which often leads to “crisis and breakdown.” Quoting Kierkegaard, Stendhal, Novalis, and Klages, Evola makes the point that knowledge of imperfection in “the desired woman” can make for an advantage. In foreknowing the inevitable defect in the target of his affection, the lover defers disappointment and approaches the potential partner on a realistic, rather than a fanciful or mythic, basis. In fact, Evola argues, the hesitancy in realism increases the opportunity for a transcendental element to enter into the union, when the partners agree to bring it about.
Evola’s treatment of female modesty in the same book is likewise worthy of a précis. Evola insists that, in respect of “modesty related to nakedness” and “modesty specifically linked to the sexual organs,” it is necessary to distinguish “between male and female modesty.” The modesty of the female, Evola writes, “just like her shyness, ‘bashfulness,’ and ‘innocence,’ is a simple ingredient of her sexually attractive quality and can be included among the tertiary characteristics of her sex.” Among themselves, Evola asserts, women ignore modesty. They even flaunt their beauty, as though in contest. According to Evola, “Counterevidence for female modesty as a nonethical but sexual fact is that, as is well known, modesty relating to their own nakedness ends altogether when women meet each other and makes way for pleasure in exhibitionism.” Evola points to the beach in summertime for one item of his “counterevidence”: A woman “would be ashamed to show her panties by raising her dress, whereas she will display herself with shameless, animal innocence in the latest bikini.” It would follow, if Evola’s observations were true, that even the subject of a Penthouse centerfold exhibits herself as much to women as to men, perhaps even more to women than men. Evola’s sunny strand in the estival season serves for proof, as the bikini-girl discloses her attributes publicly to men and women alike without any cavils. Evola then argues that in coitus reticence reasserts itself and male and female modesty become one. The preference for night as the proper time for intercourse tells Evola that men and women want their couplings to occur under concealment.
Julius Evola (1898 – 1974): Eros and the Mysteries of Love (1968)
Evola confessed to no Christian dispensation, but he recognized the Catholic Church as participating in a Tradition from fealty to which the modern world had largely detached itself. He judged this detachment a disaster – in every possible way, extending to the degradation of sexuality. Evola could only take seriously the Christian notion of a fallen world. He had his own, semi-pagan version of it. In an exclusively secular environment all mystery has fled and so too, therefore, has any possibility of transcendence. From this default stems the rank quality of a modern life dedicated in its narrowness to working in a bureaucracy, tediously accumulating banal chattels, and seeking solely in sexual contact the physiological release of genital convulsion. Evola nods to St. Paul, whom he otherwise blames for inserting a Puritanical strain into early Christianity, for conceding in Ephesians that the union of the sexes entails a mystery by which the dead weight of the body might be, in a moment outside of time, overstepped. Medieval Catholicism provided the framework for Chivalry, which in its poetic manifestation of the troubadour chanson had distinctly heterodox origins. Evola qualifies Chivalry. The knight could not avoid women in his daily existence and could not do otherwise than treat them courteously, which he did. And yet, “It is likely that the knights had as their focus not real women but rather a ‘woman of the mind’ linked to a practice of evocations, a ‘lady’ who basically had an autonomous reality independent of the physical individual.”
The motifs of fallenness and redemption pervade the art of the pin-up, the former as a frequent visual theme and the latter as a chivalrous impulse solicited by the plight in the depiction. Fallenness can be present thematically and redemption absent, but the former always calls forth the latter, successfully or unsuccessfully, and if the latter appeared not it would imply a moral judgment on the spectator. These two motifs – fallenness and redemption – intercommunicate with the observations brought forth by Evola in his Metaphysics of Sex. Earlier I wrote that glamour art excludes the man (“men never enter the picture”), concentrating its attention instead on the curvaceous charm and blushing smile of the young woman, but the artist includes the man in a non-pictorial mode and as a phenomenological necessity. One way or another, the viewer, with his much-denounced “male gaze,” completes the picture. Women may also study these images, no doubt with a different psychological reaction than the man, but the same completion will not result. Take the image cited in the first paragraph of this essay, Driben’s cover for Beauty Parade (September 1950): The girl has not fallen, but is in danger of falling; she is simultaneously unbalanced and at risk of shaming herself because her gym-knickers have come loose at her waist. She is on her way home from some casual shopping; she carries a bouquet of flowers in her right arm and a bag of groceries in her left. The perfect “o” of her mouth indicates her uh-oh state of mind, her discomfort from several causes at once. Driben makes her buxom under her tight-fitting sweater and leaves her legs bare, but the eye remarks her predicament first and decency would come to her aid before it would talk her up.
Another Driben cover, for Flirt (April 1951), gives itself over to a fresh-faced blonde in a western-style halter-top and hot-pants who wears also a black cowboy hat and red, high-heeled cowboy boots. She has been thrown from her horse, which gallops away, rider-less, in the distance. Worse, the young thing has fallen backwards into a cactus plant. Driben paints her as she removes the prickles from her thighs. Given that this image highlights the gluteus (the hot pants fit to form), it must be classified as cruder than the Beauty Parade cover; its situation is also much less plausible than that of its counterpart, almost ridiculously so. A calculatedly immodest cavalcade has, however, pitched the damsel into what can only be considerable distress. Unlike the girl in the Beauty Parade cover, who walks in proximity to her domicile, the Flirt girl, who resembles Marilyn Monroe, finds herself precipitated in a wilderness. Her humblement occurs with no surety of immediate rescue – and, once the eye has finished its natural obsession with the lassie’s secondary attributes, the element of isolation in the picture’s symbolism elicits from decency no small degree of vicarious distress. It is easier for Chivalry to be there in the Beauty Parade cover than there in the Flirt cover. The bucking horse on the horizon meanwhile suggests the overconfidence of the rider; or more broadly an attempt to harness nature, her own, that has gone awry. In this framework, Driben’s bodily exaggerations make sense. In her misguided venture to make herself a goddess on this earth – in Evola’s words, to usurp the attributes belonging to another plane – the jeune femme has brought herself low, but even for all that, solicitude would go out to her.
Gillette Elvgren (1914 – 1980)
The anonymous writer of the Introduction to 1000 Pin-Up Girls (1997) tells a story about the demise of Harrison’s publishing empire in the mid- to late-1950s, when Beauty Parade, Flirt, Eyeful, and their sister journals had suddenly to compete with Hugh Hefner’s photographically explicit centerfolds, the first of which appeared on the newsstands in December of 1953. Harrison began to furlough his cover artists and to substitute for their characteristic oils and acrylics, always in vivid colors, two-tone photographs of his interior models. Harrison altered the inside contents, too. In his new flagship publication, Whisper, a “wild, hard, and dirty” between-the-covers matter crowded out the burlesque “photostories” of the older titles, with their lingerie-clad models in risqué poses. Whisper aimed at “serving up a diet of strong stories about bad girls, sex-starved Foreign Legionnaires, horrific murders, the bizarre rites of weird indigenous tribes, and hard-hitting photoreports on street-crime.” The cover captions advertise such items as “Benzedrine Parties,” “Free Love in Prison,” and “Confessions of a Con-Girl.” A comparison of the glamour art covers with the photographic covers shows the devolution from Driben’s vision of a sexy but idealized and invariably naïve girl to a cold snapshot model who cannot conceal her mercenary status. Harrison’s run ended in 1958, when his depleted finances and a series of lawsuits forced him to sell his titles, all but one of which disappeared.
Driben received handsome commissions from his clients, but according to his biographers he never enjoyed financial security. Elvgren, Driben’s main competitor, worked from Chicago rather than from New York, lived with a wife and raised a family, and found himself much in demand in corporate advertising. He had a long-term contract with Coca-Cola, for example. Elvgren’s glamour art differs from Driben’s in a number of ways: It is noticeably more refined, less hastily painted than Driben’s; Elvgren portrays his models as distinct persons more than does Driben; and Elvgren has a more subtle sense of comedy than Driben. In a series of calendar images, Elvgren depicts his girls getting tangled up in their household chores, or in their recreation, so that they veer toward becoming “accidentally scantily clad” (to quote myself) in a way that absolves them of any naughty intention. One image, entitled “Belle Ringer” (1941), depicts a pretty brunette in a yellow maid’s outfit, who, bending over to lift a basket of newly washed garments, has flung the hem of her short skirt into an automatic wringer. The image reveals a good deal of leg, but no more than one would see if the colleen were wearing a bathing suit on Evola Beach. Indeed, Elvgren’s association of his model with domesticity endows on her an aura of cleanliness and responsibility. She is a tidy girl. Another image, entitled “My Face is Red” (1937), illustrates the ensnarement of a youthful female tennis-player in the tennis net, over which and into which she has tripped. She sits on the grass, legs bare, knees apart, with the top two buttons of her tunic undone and some minor cleavage revealed.
Neither of these Elvgren girls exhibits lasciviousness. The girl in the maid’s uniform will extricate herself from the wringer and continue her chores; the tennis player will pick herself up and take on the next item of her day. Their respective imbroglios do temporarily reveal their corporeal charms, but they also reassert, in a comedic way, the non-utopian character of life. Humorous incidents in comedy require a fall-guy, or a fall-girl, but Elvgren’s “good girl art” never elicits Schadenfreude; it elicits a rescuing intervention, even if this intervention, on the part of the male onlooker, is mixed up with erotic appreciation of female allure. Everything in this world is mixed up. And as Northrop Frye has argued – the sign of comedy is that it ends in marriage. Is beauty too sacred a word to apply to the female creations of Driben and Elvgren or of the other glamour painters? The question might be resolved through a comparison. In the film of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical State Fair (the 1945 version), actress Jeanne Crain, twenty at the time, plays the role of Margy Frakes, a high-school senior, engaged (it seems) to be married, who suddenly, although unclearly, sees new vistas opening before her. In one number early in the story, “It might as well be Spring,” Margy sings of her discomposure. She feels “restless,” “discontented,” and desires to become “a girl I’ve yet to meet.” Novel emotions have, in effect, tumbled her.
Gillette Elvgren (1914 – 1980)
Director Walter Lang dresses Margy in a white chemise with short sleeves, which reveal her colletage and most of her arms. Margy wears a knee-length blue skirt with an apron, but like the chemise it fits tightly so that Miss Crain’s figure, a svelte one, stands out. The camera discovers Margy in her bedroom in the upstairs of the family house. Her curly brown hair frames her pert face. During the sequence, before she seats herself in a window to sing the song, she examines herself in a standing mirror, holding a new dress in front of her so as to see herself afresh. As Lang has filmed her, Margy looks like an Elvgren girl, if not one of his Flirt or Beauty Parade covers (but that is not to exclude them) then one of his advertisements – for Coca-Cola, say, which often feature young women with a “Midwestern” or “Small Town America” air. State Fair is a comedy. Margy will experience several mix-ups during her visit to the fairgrounds. She will come away, after having been precipitated two or three times, with an unexpected offer of marriage from a new man who plucks her out of her precipitation. Given the ubiquity of pin-up art in 1945, it is not implausible to suggest that Lang modeled Margy after an Elvgren girl. If Margy were beautiful – and she is – then Elvgren’s cover-girls, and maybe even Driben’s, would be beautiful, too. Margy and the “good girls” certainly have in common a feminine vulnerability in which one can detect a genuine pathos.
As pin-up art is almost entirely forgotten in today’s world, why bring it back into discussion? Our contemporary society, as Evola discusses in his Bow and Club (1968), has for a long time dedicated itself to ugliness rather than beauty. In the mid-1960s, after the glamour magazines had disappeared, Evola remarked a pervasive “enjoyment of degradation and self-contamination.” This “taste for vulgarity,” coming from one direction, combines with a Puritanical tendency to conflate sexuality with promiscuity, coming from another, so as to distort radically the perception of Eros. (The Puritanism that I invoke would, on the basis of its identification, repress sexuality in toto.) Sixty years on, the same cult of ugliness still rules. It has saturated popular culture. A performer named Cardi B recently won an “American Music Award” for a video routine (I will not call it a song) whose title (unprintable) is abbreviated as “WAP.” According to Wikipedia, “The song received critical acclaim and was praised for its sex positive messages.” The video’s combination of obesity, nakedness, satanic imagery, and references to body-fluids qualifies it to define obscenity. The Democratic Party invited Cardi B to its 2020 convention, where she “interviewed” Joe Biden and performed her vulgarity before the crowd. According to Newsweek, “The rapper has become an outspoken voice for the Democratic agenda, calling out President Donald Trump over the government shutdown in a post that went viral earlier this month.”
Freely available televisual fare in 2021 makes the glamour art of the 1940s and 50s look remarkably tame. On the other hand, if a male undergraduate at a state college sat in a public place reading Flirt or Wink, he would likely be denounced by a blue-haired feminist with nose, ear, and cheek piercings; brought up on charges by Human Resources, and expelled from his matriculation. Cardi B and the blue-haired feminazi agitate for the identical nihilistic agenda; they constitute a pincer movement against received morality and authentic life. The blue-haired feminazi represents the Ultra-Puritanism that denies the reality of sexual dimorphism, judges as rape all heterosexual contact of whatever kind, even the “male gaze,” and advocates for “antinatalism,” an ideology that declares procreation and birth as evil. Cardi B represents the whoredom that, in a preferential way, conflates sexuality with promiscuity, and would liberate all bodily functions from any ethical control. Both have declared war on the beautiful – and therefore on the good and the true. They have declared war, in other words, on Creation. They resent Creation, but why? – Because it is beautiful and they secretly know that they are not. They could try to beautify themselves, but they remain deeply addicted to resentment, a more powerful drug than coke or heroin, and one that has contaminated and intoxicated the West since the misnamed “Summer of Love.” So they declare their ugliness as superior to beauty, which they have come to hate. Pin-up art, perhaps misguidedly, recognizes and extols a species of beauty that contributes to the total beauty of the Cosmos – the Venusian enchantment of the youthful female form.
State Fair — “It Might as Well be Spring”
P.S. I performed a small experiment. I sent Driben’s figure-portrait of the grocery-carrying girl to three friends, asking them what their reaction would be if they met her on the sidewalk on a summer afternoon in Oswego. One wrote, in his usual humorous style, how the phrase “looks like you could use a hand comes to mind.” He added that, “She would probably hand me the grocery bag or the flowers, while I would have meant her shorts.” Another invoked nearly the same phrase, “Could I give you a hand?” He appended the following: “She is obviously having some trouble, as her hands are full and she is in danger of losing her shorts. The entire picture suggests a loss of control including her slightly twisted legs and her ample bosom which looks to not be constrained by a bra. From the written statement by her thigh, I would guess the story is about how the lives of the women you know are more of a mess than they would lead you to believe.” The third respondent supplied an anecdote about his having once answered a request for assistance from a young woman – and the potential danger in it from which, thankfully, he was able, with some fast thinking, to extricate himself. He concludes with this: “So it is, Tom, when I see an image of a girl like that featured in Beauty Parade, I smile; then recoil, quickly putting it out of mind. There is no upside to a girl like that for a man like me.” My own reaction – and this will have been obvious from the essay – lies closer to the first than to the third although I bow to the wisdom of the third.
P.P.S. I vetted my illustrations with two of The Orthosphere’s contributing editors. Here are their responses: (1) “The covers are salacious by the standards of the 1940s, but I can’t imagine they will arouse impure thoughts in the minds of today’s readers. The pin up is clearly part of the cultural story we try to chronicle here, so I see no reason to suppress them”; (2) “Agreed. I can remember feeling shocked and scandalized when I first saw such cover art, at the liquor store downtown where my father was picking up a bottle of something. But that was in 1960, when I was 5. To the eye of today, such things look mostly cute. The Gibson Girl followed the same trajectory, as I recall. Like the flappers, and the Sweater Girls.”