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Dragons of Chang Ch’ien, Tom Lovell, 1934

The dog days of summer. The heat fills your lungs and seems to choke you. The plants are dying, burned on the vine and turned to dried strung out weeds. There is no escape from it, a low cooking temperature even at night in the shade. I love reading Noir in the summer–the blunt brutality of stories full of fears and base human emotions. I can not help when reading one of my favorites but see visions of the amazing cover art that so defined this genre. Pulp art is frozen scenes of nightmares told in a majestic technicolor. As the author of Pulp Art Robert Lesser says, “It is storytelling art in motion, like a still photograph taken from the middle of a movie, stop-action at the crisis point.” 

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The Mysterious Wu Fang, Jerome Rozen, 1936

From Science fiction and fantasy to mystery and Westerns, pulp art flourished from roughly 1930-1950 to grace the covers of pulp magazines. These covers started as amazing paintings, dramatically composed to grab attention and sell stories. The use of perspective and action creates seemingly 3-D stills where the background fades into space–often containing women in dire peril or some catastrophic event frozen in time.

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Patrol of the Cloud Crusher, Frederick Blakeslee, 1936

The artists themselves were not treated well by popular culture. Pulp fiction was considered trash and sparked heated debates over the meaning of “literature”. With the passage of time, societal views on judging an entire body of work by it’s genre have changed–many of the pulp writers, Hammet, Chandler, & Thompson come to mind, haven risen into at least the lowly ranks of literature. Their writing spare and at times as razor sharp as the plot. Similarly, the large body of work created for pulps is now viewed as the great painting following the classical tradition that it is.

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H.J. Ward cover for Spicy Mystery Stories next to St. Sebastian, Antonio Bellucci, 1718

In his book “Pulp Art” Robert Lesser compares the pulps and art history, implying that some of the most successful pulps were influenced by the art of the Renaissance and other classical periods. A shift in styles occurred in the Renaissance that relates to popular art. In the middle ages art was seen as a luxury and only intended for the wealthy and elite. The Renaissance sought to make art more available to a wider range of people, often to display in public spaces where it could tell a story. One shift in Renaissance art from the middle ages was the use of chiaroscuro–which refers to the treatment of light and shade in drawing and painting. The use of chiaroscuro and more humanistic figures in conjunction with vanishing perspective allowed the viewer to relate more with the work, feeling the emotional weight and feeling that they could literally step into the piece.

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Middle ages and the Renaissance, showing the introduction of perspective and more real looking figures

The more you look, you can see the continuum of the influence of ancient art–including the influence of Greek statues. In the statue of Laocoön and his sons–known as the Laocoön group–the composition shares the the same story as many pulps as it freezes the figures in their moment of most desperate agony and despair just before impending disaster.

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Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle, J. Allen St. John next to the Laocoön group statue from 2nd century B.C. from Lesser’s book “Pulp Art”

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3 depictions of Venus from different countries and eras; a mural in Pompeii, Venus Reclining on a Sea Monster with Cupid and a Putto, John Deare, 1790, and The Birth of Venus, Alexandre Cabanel, 1863

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Creep Shadow, Virgil Finlay, 1942

The use of light and the compositions could also be compared  to Caravaggio. Caravaggio may have painted these scenes of crisis with ease because he suffered a pulp story life himself–he was allegedly a constant fighter and all around shady character. Jailed several times, vandal of his own house, given a death sentence by the Pope for the killing of a man coupled with constant fights and attempts on his life–according to a published notice about him he was not an easy man to get along with.

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Trigger Man from Texas!, Allen Anderson, 1944 and the Crucifixion of Saint Peter, Caravaggio, 1601

Although these paintings are clearly rooted in the classical technique, you can also see the beginnings of the mid-century modern aesthetic that emerged in the 1960’s in the distinct colors, shapes and compositions.

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Sci Fi future atomic city, Frank R. Paul, 1942

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Black Thunder Trail, Hubert Rogers, 1939

A regular in our blog, it would be remiss to not mention the illustrations of N.C. Wyeth that he did in the early half of the 1900’s for books and publications. Clearly, his work was an inspiration to the pulp painters who developed in his wake.

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The Return of Tarzan–Edgar Rice Burroughs,  N.C. Wyeth, 1913

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Ambushed on the Trail, N.C. Wyeth, 1916

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Captain Nemo from Mysterious Island illustrated by N. C. Wyeth, 1918

If you haven’t tried it, summer nights are perfect for a nice scotch and some Noir fiction–the clicking of your rapidly melting ice marking time as it slides by. I read “Savage Night” by Thompson this way recently in one sitting. Raymond Chandler gives a great description of the heat in Red Wind: “There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.” It’s just another Friday night, but tonight the pulps make me remember that waiting around the next corner–just about anything might happen.

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A section of my bookcase showing some of my favorite Noir fiction