Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Art of Art Frahm, Pinups and the 1950's

To us in the year 2010 it must seem strange that sex was not discussed in the 1950’s and that pornography was not available at the press of a keystroke. Furthermore, the concepts of equality of women, sexual discrimination and sexual harassment were as absent from daily life as the concept of political correctness.

Playboy was the leader in a field of  magazines referred to as “men’s magazines”. Women had their women’s mags, such as The Women’s Weekly and Woman’s Day, featuring recipes and knitting patterns, and men had their magazines, featuring… women. The women were often depicted in erotic artworks in sexy poses and clothing, if they wore clothing at all. One of the more renowned artists is Alberto Vargas, whose work can be seen at an interesting website called The Pin-up Files at:

As an aside, the term “pin-up” was first used in 1941 although the practice goes back to the 1890’s. It refers to mass produced photographs of women and to drawings and other illustrations emulating those photographs. Originally the pictures were cut out and pinned up, later they came to be used in calendars and were specifically made for pinning up. During WW2 photos of celebrities such as Betty Grable were distributed to troops as pin-ups.

The popularity of the pin-up gave a boost to artists such as Alberto Vargas, whose work was a staple of Playboy. The depictions were of a uniform nature: beautiful, sexual, provocative. I have previously written of Anne Summer’s book Damned Whores and God’s Police. In the context of 1950’s society, God’s police read the Women’s Weekly; damned whores were depicted in the pinups in the pages of Playboy and Esquire.

Amongst this group of pin-up erotica artists was a chap by the name of Art Frahm. Now one would think that being named Art, the Universe may have predestined him for talent in that field. Regrettably that was not the case.

From Wikipedia:
Art Frahm (1907–1981) was an an American painter of campy pin-up girls and advertsising.. Frahm lived in Chicago, and was active from the 1940s to 1960s. Today he is best known for his “ladies in distress” pictures involving beautiful young women whose panties mysteriously flutter to the ground in public situations, often causing them to spill their bag of groceries. In one of Frahm’s noted idiosyncratic touches, celery is often depicted.

Frahm had adequate technical competence for his medium, with a style somewhat reminiscent of Norman Rockwell's, though more cartoony. He was mostly influenced by commercial artist Hadden Sundblom, with whom Frahm may have worked as an assistant early in his career. Frahm’s forte was depicting beautiful young white women, taking in rendering their legs and figures. Frahm’s depictions of the women's faces are less successful, often tending towards plastic doll-like expressions. Minor problems with perspective and unrealistic depiction of subsidiary figures and objects are common in Frahm’s work. Some of his artistic touches were deliberately unrealistic and artistically daring — for instance his coloring of a city street lemon-yellow in an otherwise realist painting.

Frahm was commercially successful. His falling-panties paintings are still considered too camp to be art, and too juvenile to be erotica. However this genre (which Frahm seems to have created) was in demand in the 1950s, and was later imitated by some other pin-up artists. The falling-panties art has a small cult following as mid-20th century kitsch, or even as fetish art.
Unlike Vargas’s models, who are sultry, seductive and provocative, the subjects of Frahm’s artworks are innocent and shy, although with sexy outfits, stockings and knickers. The ladies in the paintings of the “ladies in distress” genre all have shocked, startled expressions. They appear helpless, vulnerable, usually with one or more leering males present, taking delight in the situation. The women look into the eyes of the viewer. In most of the series the woman is holding a shopping bag of groceries, hence the everpresent stick of celery. Whether the grocery bag is meant to indicate homely virtues or that the woman lives in the real world is a mystery, as much as whether one would go to the grocery store dressed like that. On the whole, the images are a mixed confusion of the roles of damned whores and God’s police.

James Lilleks has a superb analysis and commentary on the art of Art Frahm and it is well worth a look. He examines quite a number of Frahm’s paintings at “Art Frahm: A study of the effects of celery on loose elastic” at:
Go to the bottom of the page each tine and click on “next”.

The Pin-up Files, the site referred to earlier, also has a collection of Frahm’s works at:
You can click on the works at the end of that entry to enlarge them.

They are a look back at the past, before sex was openly discussed, when attitudes were different and when women were seen and treated quite differently. It reminds me of the quotation by George Burns: “I can remember when the air was clean and sex was dirty”.

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