Friday, March 22, 2013

MARGARET BRUNDAGE, ACCIDENTAL FEMINIST?


"Was Brundage, unknown to herself, drawing early versions of that trope of female freedom, women who run with the wolves?" - Margaret Atwood

Intended or not, illustrator Margaret Brundage's numerous pastels that found themselves as cover art for the most famous pulp horror magazine of all time, WEIRD TALES, embodied early feminist ideas that would not be fully realized until decades later. Many of her drawings depicted nude or, at best, scantily clad women, together with wolves or other creatures of the long-fanged kind, and they were visualized as not necessarily being at odds with each other. Instead, the female in the picture often is shown in either implied and direct accord with the beasts, sometimes even "leading the pack". The end result is that these types of images can either titillate on the conscious level, or terrorize on the unconscious level.

Brundage was a newspaper fashion illustrator, but found herself tiring of seeing her drawings continually ending up in black and white. She had the notion to try her luck at pitching her portfolio of color work to local Chicago magazine publishers. She ended up falling not too far from newsprint, however, when one of the editorial offices she visited was Farnsworth Wright's WEIRD TALES.  Her first sale, though, was to the ORIENTAL STORIES title.

It is unclear if Brundage intended any views at all in her work for WEIRD TALES. She said herself that most of her ideas came from her imagination, and she seldom, if ever, used live models (contrary to some reports) other than her husband. Each cover took her about a week to complete. She would usually submit a few rough drawings, then Wright would pick which one (usually the racier!) and recommend any embellishments. She got paid $90 per assignment, which went towards staying afloat and taking care of an invalid mother, especially after her divorce from an alcoholic (and most likely abusive) husband, "Slim" Brundage.

There is some biographical evidence that she had "Bohemian", possibly even radical social or political ideas, but it is hard to translate this into pulp illustrations that are at once viewed as somewhat sadistic and sexually perverse. Still, having a background in fine art and fashion illustration, she might have at least had the notion of the power that an assertive woman could convey, especially when they were unleashed, naked and wild in a feral environment She must have also known that these luridly attractive covers could sell magazines. Farnsworth Wright certainly did. Only the grand master of fantasy magazine art, Virgil Finlay, came close to knocking Brundage off the cover spots. In this heady milieu, a crafty artisan could infuse her works with an underlying, but not necessarily apparent theme that carried a message tangential to the immediacy of the image.

Novelist Margaret Atwood expounded on the implication of so-called latent feminist tropes in Brundage's art work in the October 2011 issue of PLAYBOY. It is easy today to "read into" what went on inside the minds of writers, artists, and other creative types from times gone by, but the obfuscation of modern context prevents me from agreeing wholeheartedly with this assertion, especially when there is a paucity of evidence to support it. Nevertheless, despite that they appear exclusively in the so-called "trash fiction" market, Margaret Brundage's WEIRD TALES lithe and sinuous pastels are seductively powerful statements under any scrutiny.



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