Thursday, October 16, 2008


Last week's story about Martha Sawyers reminded me that many women's magazines in those days lured readers with tales of romance on a tropical island.



Here we see an uninhibited island girl inviting a western dignitary in for a dip:


 Thousands of housewives in places like Kansas and Ohio turned regularly to Redbook, Cosmopolitan and similar magazines for stories of love under a tropical moon. These women never travelled overseas-- in fact, many would never travel more than a few miles from home. Their fate was to raise their children, cook, clean and manage the household. If they were lucky, they found a chance to express themselves once a week in the church choir.


Here we see how the tropical moon magically unleashes the inhibitions of American girls.


 Perhaps in another lifetime these housewives might skinny dip under a lotus scented bower while brilliantly plumed songbirds trilled soft praises to their beauty. But in this life, Redbook was as close as they would ever come. These illustrations were not really pictures of the south seas. They were pictures of someplace over the rainbow. Paradise is always located someplace other than here, someplace where there are no eye witnesses or cameras to limit our imaginations or spoil our fun. People used to believe that heaven was located on top of clouds because clouds looked glorious from the ground and no one had ever been on top to see what was up there.


Gustave Dore Since there were no first hand accounts of the tops of clouds, clouds became a creative platform for some of our most audacious yearnings.


 By the 1920s, air travel had taught us that there were no angels waiting for us on top of those clouds. Air travel also brought those tropical islands a lot closer. In fact, there hardly remains a location on earth where our romantic imaginations can take refuge from the cold eye of the camera (we can even monitor the snow falling on Mars!) And yet, there are still places a camera cannot go. Sure, there are plenty of cameras documenting the south sea islands, but the tropical paradise in women's magazines was never really a geographic location. It was a place where the weather, the mosquitoes and the emotions were all controlled by an artist's brush, not by nature. Like Gustave Dore's heaven, such locations could never be portrayed by a photographer. They exist only in the domain of the artist.


ces said...

And if you go in the "romance" section of any Borders, Barnes-&-Noble, etc you'll find that nothing has changed.

David Apatoff said...

ces, I guess that some dreams die hard. I suppose that's good.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

That Dore is jawdropping. It is both litterally and figuratively divine.

Anonymous said...

If you go to the "romance" section of any bookstore you will see a change... the heart has gone out of the art.

Incidentally, I just saw the Charles Chambers native dancing girl picture at Illustration House about a month and a half ago. It was a stunner! The b/w does not do it justice. The more I learn, the more I think Charles Chapman must be one of the most underrated illustrators of all time.


jocelynw said...

i love the vintage (40's-50's?) style in the top few pictures. something about that time period, or maybe it's the just the 'vulnerability' of black and white photographs which makes me wish I could've been alive back then

David Apatoff said...

Benjamin, I am a huge fan of Dore's work. We tend to take him for granted these days.

Kev, I had no idea the Chambers piece was at Illustration House. I need to find a way to get there more often.

Myperfectlife, I know what you mean.