Thursday, July 26, 2012

Pulp Art by Robert Lesser

Lesser, RobertPulp Art: Original Cover Paintings for the Great American Pulp Magazines1997New York: Metro Books, 2009.

Pulp Art seems more like a collection of essays about the art of pulp magazine covers than a full book.  Each chapter-essay focuses on a particular genre.

Similarly, author Robert Lesser comes across as a knowledgeable enthusiast more than an academic or a professional writer.  At times he is almost a florid as the magazines that are his topic.

What will draw someone to this coffee-table book is not the history, though that is interesting.  The attraction is the large reproductions of pulp magazine cover art.

The art in this book is a little strange.  Part of the strangeness comes from its quality.  Many of these artists were much more skilled and creative than they needed to be.

The other element of strangeness is that such well-crafted art had such unabashedly commercial intent.  The covers were intended to sell magazines.

Oh, how they sold magazines.  Pulps were fundamentally adventure stories.  They covered several genres, detective, fantasy, science fiction, western, horror, even romance, but the intent of all was to give the reader a thrilling escape.  “Spicy” (i.e. sexy) stories did very well to, and they had correspondingly suggestive covers.

In some ways, the best thing about pulp art is the implied story.  Storytelling in art goes back to the earliest art.  The pulp covers had to imply a story that suggested the kind of adventure, danger, and weirdness within.  They often drew their subject from one of the stories in the issue, but sometimes a great painting was the inspiration for a story.  The art was not always strictly representational, it sometimes approached the subject in an abstract way.  Energy and dynamism come through the paintings, and even the artists with the most static style infused their image with a sense of the exotic and otherworldly.

Pulps are collected now more for their covers than for the stories they contain.  Lesser devotes a chapter to pulp collecting.  The collector, or potential collector, might be the main audience for the book.

Lesser includes brief biographies of the artists he discusses.  Many of them had success outside of pulps, and many fine artists resorted to pulps to pay the bills.  Lesser includes several pieces by other who were pulp artists or had connections to them with their recollections of the pulp era and its art.