“Vargas was the quintessential example, in that he was really excited by independent women and really excited by women in military uniforms!”
Maria Buszek is an Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Colorado, author of two books including Pin-Up Grrrls: Feminism, Sexuality, Popular Culture, and a producer on Pin Up! The Movie – a new documentary looking at the past and present world of pin ups by Colorado based film maker Kathleen Ryan.
Maria took time out to talk to MG about the pin up’s place in American history, the work of artist Alberto Vargas, the research she undertook for Pin-Up Grrrls, and of course, her involvement in Pin Up! The Movie.
As you’d expect, Maria’s a little bit of an expert when it comes to pin ups.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Maria Buszek.
When did you first become aware of pin ups and pin up artists? How did it first capture your imagination?
Well I grew up very working class in Detroit, Michigan, which is incredibly industrial, and pin ups I feel were like in the place in the community I grew up in, visible and viewed as an art form. My grandparents, who came from a Polish immigrant community, had calendars in their house, I’m guessing they got for free from businesses. My grandpa worked for the auto industry so they were always getting freebies from garages and tire manufacturers, so they would have pin up calendars around, and often these were the only art in the communities that I grew up in, so they were in the background as something beautiful and ideal and maybe even aspirational.
Then years later when I was a teenager and then in college the riot grrrl movement was happening and a lot of historic pin ups were being appropriated in collages for riot grrrl zines or album cover art, so they came back in the same way that Bettie Page’s old S&M photos did in the 1980s.
So when I started graduate school and became determined to work on contemporary art, I realised that pin ups were symbolic of this disconnect that I was finding between an older and more established generation of feminists whose work and art was really influential to me, but who were very confused about the ways that younger women were identifying and expressing feminism in art.
So I decided to use pin ups as a case study for that disconnect, but then what surprised me, and it shouldn’t have, is that I kept going back further and further to a point of origin for when feminists started looking at pin ups positively, or in a intellectual way, and it literally led me to the origins of the pin up in the 19th century, where from the moment that they were created you had a feminist movement in the west invested in suffrage and the vote.
But where they were already aware in really sophisticated ways was how women’s sexuality was wrapped up in feminism and how pop culture was an important battlefield for conversations around what feminism was and could be as a recruiting ground.
So it started when I was very young, but because they were always relating to a class agenda for me, I guess it seemed like an obvious springboard when I became a scholar to address these ongoing conversations in feminism now.
How engrained in American culture is the pin up? And how important have pin ups been to America past and present? What has been their most important contribution?
I think it’s really engrained. I think that because the pin up was really allowed to come into existence because of the industrial revolution and because of reproductive technologies and imagery like photography and prints. The technology has been around for centuries but mass reproducible print technology, those things are themselves engrained in America’s culture and in particular our visual culture which tends to be a lot less academic and has a far less illustrious history than Europe’s.
In lots of ways the pin up became symbolic of the democratic nature of American art for better or for worse. But also symbolic of American women’s sexuality because of how it’s tied up in industry and the egalitarianism of the mass reproduced image and also the modernity of the image.
The thing I discuss in the book in what separates the pin up from historic nudes is that it is very self consciously contemporary. That even the academic nudes that a lot of pin up poses and inspirations come from, pretty much always had at least the allusion to mythology or to religion or to some sort of academic or intellectual past even when it was obvious that it was a contemporary woman.
And what was the United States at this moment in the World War II era—still in our short history—but invested in modernity? And the pin-up was wrapped up in its symbolism as a modern nation. So that’s why the pin up is very much a part of American history.
In fact Andre Bazin, who was a famous French movie critic, wrote in the post WWII era an essay on pin ups where he’s complaining about them and their American-ness, that he sees in them a prudery. And it’s funny because he writes about them in the way that Theodor Adorno, the famous German philosopher, was writing about jazz during the same time. Here I’m quoting Adorno, who complains about jazz, popular culture and movies, in that ‘they let you look at the menu but they don’t actually let you eat and they tease you’.
But Bazin has similar complaints about the pin up in that, typical for Americans, it claims to be showing you everything but in fact it’s very prudish and hides the important parts and in his mind is untruthful about sexuality and about women’s bodies. But I argue—at least from the kinds of pin ups I’m studying, and honestly the ones that Kathleen’s films are about—that they’re taking that idea of what Bazin calls the prudery, the prudishness of the pin up and they look at it as power. They look at it as masquerade, they see in it control instead of hypocrisy, and run with it. I think that’s why the pin up is so popular.
What would you say has been the most important moment in the history of pin ups?
I would argue that the illustrated pin ups of the Second World War were probably the ‘golden age,’ as it’s often called by illustration scholars, for a very good reason. The pin up wasn’t born in that era, she was nearly a hundred years old, but I think what becomes important about that era is both the fact that the pin up gained a critical mass, and the moment when the pin up was really at her most contemporary as well as at her most visible. In the US at least, you had journals like Esquire that were printing pin up centrefolds by illustrators like Alberto Vargas and George Petty that have since become these icons of genre.
And Esquire, which people don’t realise, started off printing ‘military editions’ of the journal that they would give free overseas to soldiers, and so the magazine was literally travelling the globe during WWII.
And then in the post-war, Marshall Plan era of WWII reconstruction, when those soldiers and magazines stayed, they then became like Coca-Cola: a symbol to some of American heroism, or the growing importance of American culture, or to some American colonialism or imperialism. But in any case there they are, and it was kind of a high point of pin up culture, not just in its own history—where never were they so circulated, never were so they visible—but never were they so global, especially from an American centre.
But I also think that why they were so important was that in WWII, the women in these pin ups were as exciting or contemporary and popular as they were because real women around the west were having to work in capacities that they had been denied for centuries.
They were actually being required to leave their home towns to work in factories or to work for the military so they’re enjoying unprecedented independence, not just on a professional level but also on a personal level.
It’s no coincidence this is the moment you see a lot of women becoming sexually active and liberated way before there was a ‘women’s lib’ in the post war era. They had kind of gotten this taste of freedom and all that it entailed, and there was certainly great research and interviews with women who experienced these moments and these great freedoms that we tend to associate with the 1960s and their permissiveness.
But honestly they began in the WWII era, and these experiences simply coalesced in the 60s as these women’s children start to have reason to think ‘oh yeah, maybe we should talk about this,’ or ‘maybe we should integrate what my mom experienced, and maybe doesn’t want to talk about now into a broader cultural conversation.’ And the pin ups reflect that.
You talk a lot about Alberto Vargas – how important is his work to the genre and the idea of strong women?
Vargas was the quintessential example, in that he was really excited by independent women and really excited by women in military uniforms! And I mention in the book that I don’t think it’s coincidental that if you go to the Kinsey Institute at the University of Indiana and look at Kinsey’s amazing archives, that there are some really interesting images by anonymous artists, and these were things he had collected over the decades, of Vargas girls that have been re-illustrated by WWII GIs to incorporate very BDSM fetish gear.
So they’re wearing chains or boots that had been added there—in a way, like illustrated fan fiction. They’ve been modified. And they’re always Vargas images, which I don’t think is accidental because Vargas, if you look at the originals, I argue was a total foot and shoe fetishist. Like all of those nudes had these meticulous shoes and pedicures and these were tiny little feet and hands on these watercolour illustrations, which were also very difficult for him to render.
So I think that he had a lot of fans that were drawn to a very progressive and open sexual ideal for women that he depicted, and so all of this combustible moment comes together in what I agree was the most important era for pin up history.
Your research into Vargas sounds fascinating. Can you tell us the story behind it?
I got very lucky in graduate school, in fact it’s what kick started the whole project. When I arrived at grad school, I thought I’d do 19th century art, but shortly after I arrived we were doing this innocuous tour for all the grad students. The director was name dropping what they had in their print and documents, and she said ‘oh we’ve got work by Warhol and we even work by Alberto Vargas’, and I was like ‘what?’
So it stuck and I went to talk to the prints and drawings curator and he said ‘I’m so thrilled that you’re interested because nobody really wants to work on these and they’re really popular’ and he said ‘and we’re also in need of a grant to get them fixed so it would be great if we have somebody working on these so we could have some scholarship to put forth so we can apply for money’.
But the way they received them was completely random. At Esquire magazine, one of its executives in the 1980s realised that they didn’t have room for their decades worth of archives anymore, so since he had studied journalism at the University of Kansas, he talked Hearst into donating them to the University of Kansas Journalism school. So this gift wound up at the uni but as they were going through it, in a lot of the archives there was art work that they had no idea what to do with. So they then split the journalism archives to the journalism school and any visual art to the university art museum.
And the first thing they noticed was Diane Arbus photos and Warhol photos, so a lot of what we’d consider today to be fine art work that had been commissioned and published by Esquire over the years, so they kind of separated that out. But they realised they had this illustration history that had been treated very poorly for many years because the ways that magazines treated things then was just as content.
And so what Vargas would do, he would create these watercolours—the originals are about 3 feet by 2.5 feet on paper—turn them over to Esquire, who would photograph them and then they would stick them in a file.
And so that stuff was there and, even weirder, Vargas did a lot of his pin ups as nudes and then he would create—and again this is working with my fetishist theory about him–paper clothing and shoes for them and he would glue the clothes onto the nudes, which would then be photographed and then re-produced in the magazine.
So, quite scarily, when they were opening all these boxes and finding all these watercolours, little bitty paper shoes and things were going flying all over the place, because he would just put them down with rubber glue, so the watercolour paper and the watercolours were damaged because of the glue. So that’s how I first started on the pin up subject.
How did you become involved with Pin Up! The Movie?
Kathleen and I started corresponding because she had worked on a film previous to Pin Up! The Movie, about women’s auxiliary – Homefront Heroines – the WAVES of WWII. I talk a lot about the American military during WWII, particularly women’s involvement and how that became a subject for a lot of pin ups.
So she had discovered that, and that I had done a lot of archival work and found old WAVE yearbooks where they were creating pin up photos of each other, and she’d found my dissertation when she first started working on the WAVES documentary. I think I was one of the few contemporary scholars working on WAVES—for certain the only one working on WAVES and pin ups. Since her work was about digging into the personal and professional lives of these women, I think I was also one of the few people that was talking frankly about how women’s sexuality was wrapped up into this moment of professionalism and patriotism.
And so she wound up writing an article about the project in which she cited my piece and, as often happens when in academia, for your tenure dossier you have to keep track of citations (like who is citing your work) and so an article came up and I thought ‘oh cool, someone’s working on this WAVES project,’ and then out of the blue she got hold of me because we had both just moved to Colorado and she wanted pin ups to be her next project.
But honestly it’s her brainchild and I’m thrilled to be a part of it. She’s the mastermind and she’s really gotten into these women’s lives and that whole pin up culture around the states.
Finally, how would you sum up the attitude of a pin up?
Self aware, sexually assertive, and very much in control!
If you’d like to read more from Maria, then please go to mariabuszek.com. Pin-Up Grrrls: Feminism, Sexuality, Popular Culture is available to buy online. You can also read our full length feature – A Fistful of Badass – A look at Pin Up! The Movie or go to pinupthemovie.com.