Pin-Ups and Downs


As an amateur artist and a straight male, I’ve always had a soft spot, as it were, for pin-up illustration.  There are the classic Esquire and Playboy renderings of George Petty and Alberto Vargas, the quaint garage-calendar cheesecake of Gil Elvgren, and the delectable nose art emblazoned on World War II aircraft. There’s the inspired anatomical draftsmanship of comic book greats Jose Gonzalez, Russ Heath, and Richard Corben, and the sleek 1980s work of Patrick Nagel and Philip Castle.  Lately there are the hyper-sexy visions of Frank Cho, Matt Dixon, and Elias Chatzoudis.  Even the portraits of women by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, John William Godward, Gustav Klimt, Maxfield Parrish, Alphonse Mucha, Adolphe-William Bouguerau and the Spanish painter Luis Falero strike me as proto-pin-ups of the pre-pop age.  Women are beautiful, and pin-up illustration depicts their beauty with just the right blend of artistic skill and libidinal instinct.

Go to the art section of a quality library or book store, or Google “pin-up art,” and you’ll find thousands of images.  All the staple elements are there to behold, in works both coy and explicit:  women’s expressions ranging from coquettish to come-hither; idealized feminine faces, breasts, and behinds; minimal backgrounds which emphasize the human forms put front and centre; and the archetypal embodiments of male desire:  devils, angels, vampires (my personal taste inclines toward Vampirella), mermaids, nurses, cheerleaders, warrior queens, librarians, teachers, and innumerable variations on the immortal Bettie Page. You can decry it as soft-core porn or extol it as mass-produced erotica, but pin-up illustration is undoubtedly a genre unto itself.

Like other popular art forms, though – crime fiction and blues music come to mind – pin-ups have to adhere to a template, one that discourages innovation and surprise.  Reflecting the preservationist aesthetic of contemporary jazz, pin-ups must be executed with such faithfulness to the original designs that there is little room for stylistic improvisation. The hairstyles, clothes, and bra sizes of the women in modern cheesecake have been brought up to date, but the poses, compositions, and intended effects of the pictures are straight out of 1945.  In the same way that a 64-track digital studio can be used to record a slavish homage to a Django Reinhardt guitar solo, the technical abilities of pin-up artists advance, while the basic premise of pin-up art has stood still.  Pin-ups may or may not be a fetish, but they are definitely a formula.

Pin-ups, too, are a form of fantasy art, and too much indulgence in fantasy can be distorting.  You don’t have to be a militant feminist to find the women of Frank Cho and Elias Chatzoudis kind of ridiculous, their physical endowments exaggerated out of all proportion to three-dimensional humans likely to be encountered in real life.  Sure, men have an innate response to hourglass figures and lacy lingerie, but there’s a lot more to females’ attractiveness than their shapes or their sleepwear.  Dedicated readers of romance paperbacks do well to be advised that they are unlikely to be swept off their feet by a six-foot-five bachelor millionaire who lives in a castle, owns a yacht, and sports massive hairless pectorals; similarly, pin-up enthusiasts (and pin-up artists) should remember that even when they are not licking lollipops, having bubble baths, and spilling out of French maid’s outfits, ladies are still lovely to look at.  I continue to appreciate pin-up girls, but not as much as I appreciate walking, talking women.