I've recently been paying alot of attention to Indian Poster and Calendar art. I purchased a great book called "Gods in the Bazaar" : The Economies of Indian Calendar Art
which describes the various styles and prominent artists creating commercial and religious art in the 60s and 70s, and up to the present in India. It is curious that Indian pop art was often a combination of religious art, and pin up art styles -- and contained promotions for things as diverse as razor blades, engine parts, watch repair shops, bidis (see below), makeup, political campaigns, temples of worship, and nationalistic "propaganda".
This interest in Indian commercial art has caused me to develop a renewed appreciation for certain commercial artists of "the west" as well.
My father was an art professor and at one time, we had many books featuring popular western painters whose art was used in advertising, but aside from Maxfield Parrish, I previously knew so little about western commercial art.
Perhaps I have avoided this type of art for the fact that it IS commercial (and therefore, supposedly devoid of true artistic merit). After the passage of time, the advertisements tend to lose relevance/importance, while the images remain brilliantly beautiful - sometimes even more striking because of their "vintage" quality. There's a sort of irony in seeing a beautiful piece of graphic art combined with random company logos that have nothing
to do with the images.
So much of this art falls into the category of cheap pin-up art with buxom babes striking come-hither poses over a tool box and a car with the front hood open (Betty Paige, etc) But some of the pieces I've seen, used for promotion of countless companies and brands, is much more tasteful and inspiring... though it's still art for advertisement.. it was a genre of illustration that produced some really beautiful works.
One impressive arist who has become widely revered for his work in commercial art of the 1920s "Art Deco" period is Gene Pressler
: "A prominent Art Deco artist, Pressler was born in 1893 in jersey City, New jersey. Pressler's most important work was published by the Joseph C. Hoover and Sons calendar company of Philadelphia from the 1920s to the mid-1930s. His images were mainly full-length pin-ups.
Working primarily in pastels on large-size canvas (40 x 30 inches; l O l .6 x 72.2 cm), the artist insisted that his paintings be reproduced with the most up-to-date printing technology. His colors were generally rich and brilliant, like Armstrong's, but Gene was also adept at blending pastels in a blue-green colorscale.
American vintage artist and illustrator Gene Pressler designed magazine covers (Sunday Magazine, Family Magazine and Everywoman's world, 1915), magazine illustrations, magazine ads, sheet music, book illustrations, blotters, boxes, catalogs, fans, and postcards, as well as the print and calendar images. Gene Pressler was one of the exponents of calendar art of the 1920s and '30s, forerunners to the poster and cover girls of later years. Gene loved drawing exotic female themes such as harem girls, gypsies dancers, hula girls and so on, as well as the girl next door. Pressler was mainly active around 1910-1930. Pressler retired about 1940, after a distinguished career. His original paintings are extremely rare."
Upon seeing more of Pressler's work, it seems he was in many ways guilty of blatant "exoticism" - a tendency of certain artists that can really be highly offensive if you know anything about the culture being "borrowed" from to create this "exotic" appeal. His tactics often placed lily white women in jewels and robes meant for a non-western, brown skinned woman of nobility. Furthermore, his subjects are often placed in "dangerous" surroundings filled with "suspicious looking" arabic "types" lurking in the background.
The use of the supposedly "exotic" subject in art has been practiced for centuries - and therefore has become the source of cultural misunderstanding and explotative attitudes. Artists dont get away with it as much these days because alot of stereotypes and misconceptions (aka racism) have been put in their proper place. But back in earlier decades, it was quite common to see some very odd interpretations of "native/indigenous" culture being used as the backdrop for pinup art. take a look at this one for instance.
Native Americans would be disgusted by this appropriation of their culture.
Just to take the concept of exoticism back even further, take a look at works of "Fine Art" such as Jean-Joseph Benajmin-Constant
's gloriously beautiful "Evening on the Seashore - Tangiers" (Milwaukee Museum of Art)
With all of this confusing "baggage" to deal with, I still can't help admiring Pressler's dangerously alluring use of light and color. It's in no way subtle or vague.. the colors are nearly flourescent, and there is really not much left for the imagination. Still, i'm blown away by some of Pressler's calendar art (and the fancy golden border decorations framing his images).
The subject matter in these 'artistic' advertisements, which use imagery that's completely unrelated to the product being sold, is also an area to be considered further. The use of the female image in particular seems to be a long standing trend in poster art, as well as elements of fantasy, eroticism, and exoticism - all of which are used to further 'capture' the attention of the viewer. Another point worth debating, aside from the dubious use of "exotic" elements in commercial art of years past, is the difference between art for art's sake, and art made for commercial purposes.. and whether any of this commercial art has enough artistic value to stand on its own.. apart from its utilitarian purpose of seizing the attention of a potential "customer".