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The Lurid Covers of 20th-Century Pulp Fiction

Pulp cover artists recognized the American appetite for lurid and violent imagery, and the Wolfsonian is exploring the social issues embedded in their illustrations in a new exhibition.

​Murder for What? (​1936), cover illustration by George Dunsford Klein; book by Kurt Steel (pseudonym for Rudolf Kagey), Select Publication, Inc., New York (courtesy the Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Francis Xavier Luca and Clara Helena Palacio Luca)

In the Shadows: American Pulp Cover Art at the Wolfsonian–Florida International University (FIU) explores how 1920s to 1950s pulp fiction reveals the social issues of its time. The exhibition at the Miami Beach museum features 28 examples of this vivid popular art, where a whole story was conveyed from the cheap paperback’s cover, whether a wide-eyed blonde victim waiting for her gun-toting savior, or a stereotyped foreigner threatening a chiseled-faced American.

“The Wolfsonian–FIU has always adopted a different approach towards art appreciation, collecting, and exhibiting art that some might not consider fine art, but rather commercial, propagandistic, or persuasive art,” Frank Luca, the Wolfsonian’s chief librarian and the organizer of In the Shadows, told Hyperallergic. For instance, the 2015-16 Margin of Error included 1930s work safety postcards and accident insurance company posters among paintings and photographs. “As many of the ‘pulps’ sold millions of issues, the artwork designed to sell the stories definitely qualifies them as powerfully persuasive art,” Luca added.

Detective Fiction, ​December 1941 issue of the periodical, Frank A. Munsey Company​, New York (courtesy the Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Francis Xavier Luca and Clara Helena Palacio Luca)

Along with his work as the Wolfsonian’s chief librarian, Luca moonlights as a history professor at FIU, and the exhibition evolved from a recent history and film course called “The Underbelly of America” concentrating on American social problems from the 1900s to the 1950s.

“Four of the undergraduate history students elected to work on a curatorial project examining themes of sex, stereotyping, and violence using the Wolfsonian–FIU Library’s collection of pulp periodicals and paperbacks and linking them to pre-code and film noir Hollywood cinema,” Luca explained. At a time when Hollywood films were censored, the pulp periodicals and books tantalized readers with the promise of crime, sexuality, and violence. The four FIU students included Joseph Perez, who focused on the depiction and demonization of Muslim people in pulp adventure cover art; Erica Melamed, who studied how women became increasingly sexualized over the decades on the covers; Tiffany Breslawski, who looked at how violence towards women frequently appeared on crime covers; and Mauriel Fernandez, who concentrated on the tropes of women being kidnapped and used as human shields, whether the villain was a local gangster or a foreign enemy.

All of these themes are present in the compact exhibition at the Wolfsonian, ranging from a 1934 edition of Argosy Weekly titled “Lion of Morocco,” showing a larger-than-life man with a beard and turban menacingly reaching a hand over the sand dunes, to a 1945 issue of Black Mask, where just a woman’s legs, clad in red heels that hint at a fallen woman status, are visible, the majority of the cover consumed by a sidewalk grate under which an armed man is preparing to shoot. The target audience for these books was usually young, white men, and the lurid covers that featured male heroes and helpless or femme fatale women can be seen as a precedent to the character patterns of American comic books.

The artists in the pulp industry were often talented and visually innovative, yet mostly overlooked by the art world. For example, George Gross was a Pratt graduate who worked as a fashion artist and later opened his own art studio, while Rafael Desoto worked in advertising art, supplementing his career with cover paintings for the pulp magazines. In the early decades of the 20th century, these covers were standalone paintings first, before being mass-produced on the paperbacks.

As Luca stated, “While many museums of the era were interested only in ‘modern’ and abstract art, pulp cover artists and illustrators recognized and capitalized on the average American’s appetite for realistic and even melodramatic imagery.”

​Black Mask​, ​November 1945 issue of the periodical, Fictioneers, Inc., a division of Popular Publications, Inc.​, New York (courtesy the Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Francis Xavier Luca and Clara Helena Palacio Luca)
Detective Novels Magazine, ​October 1943 issue of the periodical, Better Publications, Inc., New York (courtesy the Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Francis Xavier Luca and Clara Helena Palacio Luca)
See What I Mean? (1943), book by Lewis Browne, New Avon Library, New York (courtesy the Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Francis Xavier Luca and Clara Helena Palacio Luca)
Crack Detective, May 1944 issue of the periodical, Columbia Publishing (courtesy the Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Francis Xavier Luca and Clara Helena Palacio Luca)
Argosy Weekly, November 3, 1934 issue of the periodical, cover art by Paul Stahr, the Frank A. Munsey Company, New York (courtesy the Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca)
The Hucksters (1952), book by Frederic Wakeman, Avon, New York (courtesy the Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Vicki Gold Levi)
Broadway Virgin (1949), cover art by Wesley Snyder, book by Lois Bull, Diversey, New York (courtesy the Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Vicki Gold Levi)
Private Detective, ​January 1946 issue of the periodical,Trojan Publishing Corp.​ (courtesy the Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Francis Xavier Luca and Clara Helena Palacio Luca)
Argosy Weekly, January 20, 1934 issue of the periodical, cover art by Paul Stahr, the Frank A. Munsey Company, New York (courtesy the Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca)

In the Shadows: American Pulp Cover Art continues at the Wolfsonian-Florida International University (1001 Washington Avenue, Miami Beach, Florida) through July 9.

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