Tuesday, 19 January 2021

The Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage

Brundage Domination

The Alluring Art of
Margaret Brundage -
Queen Of Pulp Pin-Up Art

by Stephen D. Korshak and J. David Spurlock
Vanguard ISBN: 9781934331507

I remember seeing my first Margaret Brundage cover printed in a large format, hardback anthology book about the early days of science fiction maybe 40 or more years ago. It was for one of the Conan stories, Queen Of The Black Coast in the 1934 issue of Weird Tales. My one big takeaway, at the time, was that no matter how splendid and inviting the female figure in the illustration looked, the guy in the picture didn’t look a heck of a lot like Conan, even for the period it was illustrated when perceptions of body types were much different to what they are today (I now know the model for the picture is Margaret’s once husband ‘Slim’ Brundage). During Autumn of 2020, I re-read the complete run of the Conan stories that were published in Weird Tales again (a review will be forthcoming at some point this year, in a special Robert E. Howard Prose and Movies themed week on this blog) and with it, I rediscovered the beautiful artwork of Brundage once again.

It’s true, to my eyes the male figure still looks nothing like the descriptions of Conan in the stories (I think Frank Frazetta probably gave us the truest rendition of Howard’s powerhouse Cimmerian) but the girls are something else and, now I have this book, The Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage - Queen Of Pulp Pin-Up Art, I find that it was mainly the profusion of scantily clad and often totally naked women rendered lovingly by Brundage in pastels which were the main selling point of Weird Tales... a magazine she started doing covers for in the early 1930s through to the late 30s/early to mid 40s. I was also surprised to learn that, asides from the novelty of a female cover artist plying her trade with such erotically provocative imagery, she was also something of the trendsetter of this style, with most magazine cover art which came before her being of sci-fi style machinery, rockets etc. for these kinds of publications.

Alas, despite the fact that we have this lovely and brilliant book with her illustrations in it, there seems to be a lot of information lacking about her actual life. We do know that she was born in 1900 in Chicago and had a hasty marriage (with a protracted aftermath) to ‘Slim’ Brundage, who she met while working at The Dil Pickle Club, a hotspot of bohemian art and socialism. I know she was a six foot tall chain smoker and that she went for the cover artist job for Weird Tales in order to support her young son and crippled mother. When the owners of Weird Tales were bought out and relocated, various factors including the transportation of delicate, fragile pastel work to those offices of the new publishers meant that she no longer had a job. She clung on to life tenaciously though, leaving her cover artist days behind her and becoming involved in various political organisations, sadly outliving her son by a few years.

There are other details which I won’t summarise here (hey, read the damned book) but what little facts are available, plus a hell of a lot about the political and social background of where Margaret was and who she was seen with at various stages of her life, is lovingly put together for this publication. There’s even a second ‘book within a book’ which organises a lot of this info into more of a chronology and really fleshes things out, which is called The Secret Life Of Margaret Brundage or: Slim & Margaret: A Bohemian Romance of the Chicago Renaissance by J. David Spurlock.

As well as all this stuff though, there are many beautiful full page renditions of her artworks, in their original form without any of the typography plates later seen on the cover versions. There are also page sized reprints of all her magazine covers as they appeared here too and it’s these replicas of well over 60 covers (and not just her ones for Weird Tales) that are the buried treasure compiled within these pages. Along with a few surviving photos of Margaret herself (not many, she was a woman who seemed allmost inadvertently shrouded in mystery) plus the odd photo from the kind of nudie girly magazines that Margaret would be using as reference for her images (I’m glad to see nothing changes in the world of art... I used to do the same thing for fashion drawings when I was at college).

There’s also the odd, fantastic anecdote along the way and the design of the book is such that some of these appear as asides to the main text in some nice, solid layouts. For instance, H. P. Lovecraft seemed somewhat disapproving of how naked girlies could help magazine sales (and I don’t believe she ever illustrated one of his covers) whereas Robert E. Howard seemed totally in love with her illustrations. I also love the fact that, once the writers had cottoned on to her style of content that raised the sales, they would start working scenes with naked damsels into their tales for a better shot at getting the coveted cover spot with their story. There’s a sad anecdote about Brundage calling in at the Weird Tales offices and crying the day away along with the guy running it when they heard of Howard’s tragic suicide in 1936. He was certainly her favourite writer of the whole Weird Tales bunch.

Another thing I took away from this was an insight into her working process. She would be sent a ‘cover story’ for publication due in two months time (she would work on one cover a month) and that would be the one story from the magazine she would read. She’d then send pencil sketches of possible covers for a few scenes and then get the green light as to which one to work up into a cover. Occasionally there would also be changes after the cover was done... by her own admission, she wasn’t that great at hands (they look alright to me but what do I know, to be honest, the hands are not the first thing the eyes are drawn to in a Margaret Brundage illustration).

There’s much more here too, especially about her political leanings but, for me and probably a lot of people, it all plays second fiddle to the wondrous, provocative and truly gorgeous art which is lovingly reproduced on the interior pages of this beautiful book. A book which is adorned with the usual critic quotes on the back which, when you look more closely at them, you realise aren’t what they appear and are, instead, comments about Brundage from her contemporaries such as some of the writers of Weird Tales... another nice touch.  I’m really glad to have this one and am especially grateful to the young lady who gifted this to me at Christmas. If you are a lover of either ‘heroic fantasy’ art or the female form (or, you know, that thrilling combination of the two) then you would do well to pick up a copy of The Alluring Art Of Margaret Brundage - Queen Of Pulp Pin-Up Art before it goes out of print. An essential volume as far as I’m concerned.

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