My Vintage Life: Bradshaw Crandell And The Evolution Of Pin-Up Art

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Happy Friday, love bugs! I hope that you are enjoying the last few days of April. Things are action stations for me right now, trying to sort out my visa so that I can finally head over to my fiancé in the US. It’s all starting to move at long last, which is great! Although this means that I really need to step up the pace on my wedding dress making. I finally got around to taking the photos of my muslin yesterday so watch out for those next week!

Anyway, on to this week’s instalment of My Vintage Life. Since starting Sew for Victory, I often get asked about my sources of inspiration. For anyone who enjoys or admires vintage style, inspiration really is key. I tend to spend a lot of time perusing photos on the internet and watching classic films as easy ways to increase my exposure to a wide variety of vintage fashions. But, for me, probably the most effective way to obtain inspiration is looking through genuine vintage magazines. I’ve collected quite a few over the past 18 months and they provide not only an insight into the every day lives and priorities of women living in decades past, but also a mine of pictures and illustrations that offer a clear portrait of popular fashion choices. The portraits used in, or on the cover of, vintage magazines particularly intrigue me. I’ve always wondered at the stylistic choices made – why a particular cover star has been featured, why the fashion selection has been made, why this or that pose has been chosen. For any popular magazine, such choices are always purposeful.

As I started to dig around for more information, I came across the name Bradshaw Crandell. Crandell was perhaps the most successful magazine cover artist through the 1930s and 1940s, working with an incredible array of Hollywood’s most elite stars to capture their image. His work is pretty astounding and I think taps into what was going on with popular culture at the time. Although Crandell didn’t typically work in what we would identify as the pin-up style (more about this below), I can’t escape the feeling that there are some fairly major overlaps between his art and the proliferation of a pin-up culture. So join me for this week’s My Vintage Life and a look at Bradshaw Crandell’s life, legacy, his contribution to the evolution of pin-up art.


 

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John Bradshaw Crandell was born in 1896, in what is identified as the Golden Age of Illustration. This period (late 1800s to early 1900s) was a period of incredible productivity and achievement in book and magazine illustrations, largely a consequence of new technologies that allowed for the cheap, mass reproduction of images. These developments were capitalised upon by professional artists, looking to make a name for themselves in the production of magazine or postcard illustrations for popular consumption. Raphael Kirchner, an Austrian artist, was particularly successful in exploiting the Golden Age with the production of what can be identified as early pin-up postcards and magazine illustrations. His relatively sexualised images of beautiful women were incredibly popular and, as World War I began, particularly favoured by soldiers.

Crandell was very much part of the legacy left by illustrators such as Kirchner. His aptitude for art was recognised early, although he failed to graduate from both Chicago’s School of Art Institute and Wesleyan University. But he never stopped being a student of his craft – he worked relentlessly at the fundamentals and could not abide inaccurate or careless work. This dedication to hard work undoubtedly served Crandell well as he moved forward in his career and, eventually, once he had attained true celebrity status.

Lana Turner

Lana Turner by Bradshaw Crandell (1943)

Crandell’s career truly began in 1921, after he was contracted to create a cover for Judge magazine. Although he had previously been hired to provide illustrations for a Lorraine Hairnets ad, it was his work for Judge that served as a launching pad for his unprecedentedly successful career. In 1925, Crandell created the John Bradshaw Crandell studios but, by 1935, had decided to drop his first name. The new Bradshaw Crandell went on to produce some of the era’s most famous magazine illustrations – including cover portraits featuring Hollywood stars such as Lana Turner (pictured above), Rita Hayworth, and Bette Davis. At the time of World War II, Crandell also turned his hand to producing ads for the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) and Pontiac, amongst others.

By the end of the 1940s, Crandell was virtually a household name. His celebrity portraits, in particular, made him a popular figure – so much so that he was used in an advert for Lord Calvert Whiskey. Crandell died in 1966 but his work is very much remembered – He was inducted into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame in 2006.

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Bradshaw Crandell’s Ad for the Women’s Army Corps (1943)

The appeal of Crandell’s work is so interesting to consider. Disclaimer: I know very little about art from an artist’s standpoint. I can’t paint and I’ve never studied art. But it seems to me that Crandell’s portraits and his legacy are not deemed exceptional purely on the basis of his (considerable) talent. Clearly – even to the uninformed among us – he has some serious artistic abilities. What’s interesting to me, however, is thinking about the extent to which Crandell’s legacy exists because of the social and cultural dynamics at play while he was producing his portraits. Essentially: was Crandell just in the right place at the right time?

Crandell is not typically remembered as a pin-up artist. Pin-up art is traditionally identified as portraits or pictures of women that are sexualised (but not pornographic) or incorporate a degree of (usually not so subtle) eroticism. The resurgence of pin-up photography as a contemporary phenomenon means that pretty much everyone can conjure a mental image of what we mean by pin-up art. Little of Crandell’s work portrayed his subjects in this traditional pin-up manner. But he walked a line between the overt eroticism that we now identify with the term ‘pin-up art’ and pictures that, while sexy in their own way, would’ve been acceptable to a more traditional female audience. The origins of the term ‘pin-up’ are enough to inform us of the typical audience for the more sexualised pin-up portraits and illustrations – these were designed as pictures for men to literally ‘pin up’ on their walls, made acceptable by the fact that they were not pornographic but still appealing in their sexual content. The women portrayed in these pictures were sometimes celebrities, sometimes unknown and unnamed girls. Crandell provided a different kind of pin-up to the world.

Rita Hayworth

Rita Hayworth in The Loves of Carmen by Bradshaw Crandell

What’s truly interesting about Crandell’s work is the manner in which he provides a sort of pin-up that crosses gender lines. With his portraits, Crandell was able to appeal to both the soldiers on the front lines – men who wanted pin-ups of their favourite movie stars – and the women left back at home. When looking at his portrait of Rita Hayworth, for example, her curves and beauty – very much accentuated by Crandell – clearly appeal to a more stereotypically pin-up culture. But Hayworth’s obvious vivacity, and the lack of an overt eroticism in the picture, would make this an appealingly aspirational portrait for women.

While Crandell did occasionally work in a more traditionally erotic pin-up style (see his portrait of Liberty, below), the fact that he is remembered for his celebrity portraits speaks to his success at seizing on the characteristics that made pin-up art so popular and making it his own.

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Spirit of Liberty by Bradshaw Crandell (1940)

I highly recommend taking some time to browse Crandell’s portraits. You’ll end up with a very clear picture of his incredible talent and the way in which he managed to simultaneously defy and subscribe to the pin-up style that dominated popular portraiture during the period. His celebrity portraits provide images that are aspirational in a way that dramatically increased his popular appeal – sexually aspirational for male consumers and providing a type of aesthetical and social aspiration for female consumers. Although the more overtly erotic style of pin-up art would continue to enjoy cultural supremacy, Crandell’s legacy very clearly continues. When we look at the types of celebrity images we often see plastering magazines today, they walk a very similar line to Crandell’s portraits – not alienating in their sexuality but simultaneously aspirational across gender boundaries. It is the ability to obtain this type of popular appeal that can make or break a celebrity and Bradshaw Crandell’s work shows just how successfully images can be used to offer a broad and multifaceted audience exactly what it wants.

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