Saturday, July 28, 2007

Al Parker at the Rockwell

For anyone in the Northeast, I would recommend a trip to Stockbridge, Massachusetts to the Norman Rockwell Museum to see an exhibition on the work of Al Parker, a mid-century illustrator for women's magazines. I was lucky enough to work on this project with Stephanie Plunkett, the chief curator at NRM. Parker's illustration brings verve, brains, and sophistication to women's fiction work. Ephemeral Beauty: Al Parker and the American Women's Magazine 1940-1960 will travel to Washington University in St. Louis (where Parker's papers are housed) and will be on view from mid-November 2007 through January 2008. Image above from Good Housekeeping, 1956.

Here's another fiction illustration from 1943, from a serialized story called "Government Girl" in Ladies Home Journal.

Critics and historians have not paid much attention to periodical illustration, which makes it an interesting subject to study. I wrote an essay for the Ephemeral Beauty catalogue on Parker's work and its relation to modernism, "Abstraction in (dis)Guise; Al Parker, Fiction Illustration, and Commercial Modernism." Part of the fun was engaging the visual landscape across the market, including pulpier magazines of the period.

From my essay, concerning the spread above:
What,finally, is an Al Parker fiction illustration for? As a
general question, fiction illustrations seek to
entertain by staging scenes to enliven the text. But
Parker himself wrote dismissively of mere arrangements
of figures with complimentary shapes and
contemporary props. And strictly speaking, the
positioning of characters in dramatic displays does
not require an illustrator at all. Indeed, downmarket
women’s magazines stopped with the photo shoot.
The June 1951 issue of Life Romances, a typical
publication of its kind, features “nonfiction” articles
describing the misadventures of wayward women.
The story "Bride of Fear" uses a poor imitation of
a Parker illustration layout with display typography
and a pair of photographic cut-out figures, each on
the phone: the compromised bride-to-be and the
creepy blackmailing lout from her past, armed with
a highball and a grin. The photo credit for these
and comparable images throughout the magazine
goes to Trend Studios, an outfit billing substantially
less than a Westport illustrator with a swimming
pool. Understandably so: Ladies’ Home Journal
sold for a quarter a copy in 1951; Life Romances
went for fifteen cents.
Ephemeral Beauty will be at the Rockwell museum through the month of October. It's a bang-up show, and worth your while if you study visual culture.

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