Pulp Art: Vamps, Villains, and Victors from the Robert Lesser Collection
- Dates: May 16, 2003 through October 19, 2003
- Collections: Contemporary Art
The Birth of the Pulps
The pulps were born in 1882, when Frank Munsey released The Golden Argosy, an inexpensive magazine of inspirational stories for children. Later renamed Argosy and aimed at adult males, Munsey’s venture filled a need for the millions of working-class and newly literate Americans who could not afford “slick” magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Harper’s. With improvements in railway shipping, the expansion of the U.S. Postal Service, and such publishing innovations as the invention of wood-pulp paper and photo-mechanical reproduction in the 1880s, Munsey realized he could lower printing and distribution costs. For 10 to 25 cents, he could offer readers escapist fiction tailored to a variety of personal tastes. Reading for pleasure would no longer be limited to the upper classes.
Although it was the stories that kept readers buying the magazines, cover artists had the crucial job of transforming pulp authors’ words into visually dynamic scenes that would grab potential readers’ attention and entice them into making a purchase. Through dramatic perspective, compressed composition, and vibrant, contrasting color, artists skillfully made the action “pop,” distracting buyers from the poor paper quality. As more publishers came on the scene and competition consequently got tougher, the covers got racier, heightening the pulse of both the reader and the censor.
Contemporary Art and the Pulps
Although the stylistic influence of pulp art has gone largely unrecognized in the study of art history, its legacy is manifest. In this gallery, you will see that some contemporary artists have been directly influenced by pulp art’s bold colors, wild fantasies, and implied narratives. But you will also see that, fifty years after the demise of the magazines, virtually all of these contemporary artists are grappling with the kinds of pressing social issues that pulp artists investigated in the first half of the twentieth century.
Today, some artists unapologetically celebrate the eroticization of the idealized female body, while others explore the traditional, still pervasive stereotypes of sexuality. Some artists work with taboo subject matter, forcing us to confront our moral biases in a changing world, while others highlight disquieting threats to white middle-class values. Some artists express fascination with adventure in exotic locales, while others imagine entirely new worlds complete with alien creatures.
While the aesthetic influence of pulp art can be readily seen in film and graphic and industrial design, it should become clear that the pulp artists have had an impact as well on the aesthetic and intellectual concerns of avant-garde artists today.
A New Era and the End of the Pulps
By the end of World War II, the U.S. was very different from the country it had been at the height of the pulp era. The nation was stronger than ever, with unprecedented wealth and technological expertise. Unemployment was nearly nonexistent, and Americans could afford to go to restaurants regularly and buy luxury items. Consumer consumption increased, while in war-torn Europe countless people experienced squalor and even starvation.
The pulps became a casualty of the war. Wartime rationing of paper and metal had made the magazines more expensive to produce and less profitable. And the pulps’ readers had changed. When the young men who were their intended audience returned from wartime service, after sobering combat experiences overseas, they had moved past the fantasy adventures of the pulp heroes.
Reading tastes were changing in other ways as well. The public generally had become more sophisticated—more aware of international political conditions, better educated, and more affluent. Americans were enthusiastically turning to the new paperback novel, in place of the fiction magazine. And by the end of the war, the circulation of comic books, aimed at the younger audience, was four times that of the pulps. In addition, in the coming years television would become commonplace, introducing another competing form of popular entertainment.
As a result of such change, by the early 1950s the pulps had vanished in the U.S. But their influence was potent and lasting, as their stories generated new literary genres. And over the years, the pulps became an international phenomenon, in Italy, France, Germany, and in South America. Pulp art had fired countless imaginations and would continue to influence subsequent decades of film, advertising, architecture, industrial design, comics, and art.
Struggling with Diversity
In the 1920s through the 1940s, the heyday of the pulps, America’s ethnic identity was in flux. Since the opening of Ellis Island in 1892, the population had been growing larger and more diverse, as millions of Europeans and others of varying religions and backgrounds immigrated here. New Yorkers alone spoke thirty-seven different languages. Despite America’s view of itself as a land of liberty and fair opportunity for all people, however, it also saw itself as a place of assimilation, where different groups all become one people: the “melting pot.” Many were troubled—and even felt threatened—by the multitude of new cultures and religions at home. Growing restrictions on immigration, the continued segregation of African Americans, and the internment of Japanese Americans in “relocation” camps during World War II show that this was a nation struggling with its own diversity. While pulp paintings reveal a curiosity and tempered enthusiasm for different places and peoples, they also suggest concerns over American security, along with a fear of the unknown, and they often demonize the unfamiliar.
The racist depictions of foreign cultures, often Asian, seen in the pulps are related to the isolationist sentiments of the time. The country had grown to maturity on a remote continent in the absence of threats from abroad, a luxury afforded to few other nations. This circumstance bred in many Americans a kind of delusion—that they could choose when, or even whether, to participate in world affairs—reflecting a deep, but ultimately unsustainable sense of independence from global issues. At the outbreak of World War II in Europe, before America’s entry into the conflict, President Roosevelt stated: “This nation will remain a neutral nation. But I cannot ask that every American remain neutral in thought as well. . . . Even a neutral cannot be asked to close his mind or close his conscience.”
At the war’s conclusion, with the Depression behind them and victory secured, Americans felt the war they had once resisted had been a “good war.” Despite their newfound optimism and power, however, some Americans came to have great discomfort over how the war had been prosecuted and the legacy of the atrocities seen in Europe and in Asia.
Women in Peril
The pulps’ eroticized images of women were designed to quicken men’s pulses and inflate magazine sales. These super-sexy women were exposed objects of male desire, often the victims of torture, rape, or murder at the hands of gruesome villains. The heroes who rescued these voluptuous victims from peril hoped to be rewarded with the enjoyment of the feminine charms denied to the monstrous aggressors.
But it wasn’t all bad for women in the pulps. There were a few pulp heroines—powerful, beautiful, and scantily clad—who single-handedly fought off their oppressors. Women also painted and wrote for the pulps, but usually under masculine pseudonyms. And while pulp magazines were aimed primarily at males, many women read these daring fantasies and delighted in the sexual liberation they sometimes represented.
Pulp art was created during times when women’s roles in American society were changing and their sexual freedom was increasing. While traditional domestic roles prevailed, new female identities emerged. In the 1920s, for example, young “flappers” rid themselves of corsets and elaborate hairstyles and took to a freer lifestyle and appearance. Other factors, such as reproductive control, the right to vote, and increasing professional opportunities, also made themselves felt during the pulp era. In one interesting example of change, in 1934 Frances Perkins, who tried (unsuccessfully) to sell stories to pulp magazines, became the U.S. Secretary of Labor and the first female Cabinet member, paving the way for women’s reform within government.
Despite these advances, however, the pulps continued to reflect the widespread view that women were vulnerable and at the mercy of men, and echoed the real and criminal fact that violence against women was commonly accepted.
Science and Fiction
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), and H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds (1898) were the great prototypes of the pulps’ scientific horror stories. Pulp artists and writers followed these authors’ lead, telling tales about time travel, ingenious machines, voyages to alien planets, and mad scientists. These pulp stories of the fantastic became known as “science fiction,” a genre that turned futuristic technology into thrilling adventure.
Pulp publishers understood the allure of the unknown and strove to ignite the reader’s imagination with speculations about a future full of new inventions and alien worlds. And the pulp artists seized on the opportunity to show where an era of unprecedented scientific discovery might lead. But while the pulps praised the promise of technology, which was becoming increasingly advanced, they also warned of its possible perils, producing not only utopian but anti-utopian visions. Their vivid depictions of imaginary dangers—alien invaders, monsters spawned by radiation, and robots replacing humans—also reveal anxiety about genuine threats: paintings of alien attackers could reflect fears about technologically advanced weaponry; depictions of mindless automatons might suggest worries about the loss of individual identity in an increasingly regimented society. The future became a forum in which pulp artists could express their concerns and values.
Though often speculative, many of the pulp artists’ imaginings drew on actual discoveries of the day. In turn, many of the artists’ creative designs would have a significant, if largely unacknowledged, impact on modern architecture, industrial design, and the packaging of advanced technologies. And while the pulp artists’ influence on the visual style of more than half a century of science fiction films has been largely overlooked, it has been widespread.
Heroes and Villains
The white, male pulp reader could dream of being just like the hunky heroes with bulging muscles who proliferated on the magazine covers. These daredevils saved the world from evil and were often rewarded with the love of abundantly sensual women who, once saved from evildoers, were indebted to their rescuers. Most popular were hard-boiled detectives, he-man adventurers, war heroes, and cowboys; their adversaries included murderers, rapists, sadists, gangsters, and alien monsters.
The pulp readers’ fascination with larger-than-life heroes and villains derived from several sources. During World War I, ordinary men fought against new weapons of unprecedented destructiveness, like the machine gun or poison gas. Pulp artists celebrated these war heroes, becoming especially enthralled by the dramatic new phenomenon of aerial combat.
In addition, during an era when the government was far smaller and less centralized than it is today, some felt licensed to deal with troublesome issues by resorting to vigilante action. The pulps reflect this in their super-human heroes who take on sole responsibility for combating evil forces threatening the American way of life. Since these vigilantes—both good and evil—operated outside the law, their exploits made for exciting pulp fiction—and art.
The pulp heroes’ daring adventures often took place in exotic locales. The possibility of actually traveling to faraway lands was becoming more of a reality for the masses, with the rise of the great ocean liners and more efficient railway travel, not to mention the beginnings of commercial aviation, following in the wake of the Wright brothers’ first successful flight (1903) and Charles A. Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic (1927). Greater interest in the faraway also reflected the ease with which new printing technologies brought news stories from around the world to a more literate public, while enormously increased immigration to the U.S. also led to a heightened curiosity about foreign cultures and customs. In this context, adventure pulps sought out every exotic locale (from Death Valley to the Himalayas), historical era (from ancient Egypt to Bolshevik Russia), and dangerous occupation (detective, explorer, cowboy, and eventually, astronaut).
Americans at a Crossroads
During the heyday of the pulp magazines, from the 1920s through the 1940s, Americans lived through an era of unprecedented scientific, industrial, technological, cultural, and social change. Pulp art offers a glimpse of how Americans responded to the changes; as the era unfolded, people were torn between their excitement at the prospect of change and their fear of the unknown; between old prejudices and a new spirit of openness; and between isolationism and a growing awareness of international obligations.
Many of these changes had been set in motion in the period surrounding World War I, such as increased immigration and urbanization, the growth of giant industrial companies, and the wide acceptance of new technologies, from motion pictures to Model T automobiles. The 1920s would bring social experiments like Prohibition and women’s suffrage, the development of mass-market advertising and a new emphasis on consumer products, and, ultimately, a devastating, worldwide financial crisis.
Like pulp art at its best, life in this era was exhilarating in its extremes. While traditionally seen as a celebration of change in America, pulp art also reflects the country’s fears and its desire for greater stability in the face of an upheaval like the Great Depression (a desire that also gave rise to the sweeping political, social, and economic reforms initiated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal). As the American people were poised to experience greater innovation than ever before, they looked carefully at their past and present before traveling apprehensively into the future. The pulps, through their overwhelming presence and popularity, played a chance role in helping audiences engage with new historical currents, encouraging them to envision new scenarios and thereby challenge their conception of the world around them.