Painting Pin-Ups… at the beach

After another hot summer weekend, I’ve been thinking about a curious category of pin-ups painting: the woman who seems to be working ‘en plein aire‘ (out of doors), poolside or at the beach, wearing a swimsuit and painting not a landscape but rather a pin-up for herself, perhaps: a muscled male figure, pointedly posing, wearing briefs or a swimsuit.

Eddie Chan, “Brushing Up,” printed in Esquire, November 1952.

This male figure is out of our view but clearly the focus of her work. In Eddie Chan’s illustration, she laboriously extends her arm and has to stretch to reach the canvas; her mouth is open with the effort, her tongue raised to meet her teeth. While the flexing man’s body is only hazily visible to us, Chan’s representation attentively depicts her long limbs, her asymmetrical swimsuit that barely covers her breasts, the shadow cast where her foot and thigh meet, her fingernails with their red polish, the glossy lipstick that matches the flowers of her hat’s wide brim. Her palette is a mess of colors, and the brief poem encapsulates her lack of skill: “I think I’m a talented lass/ But I stand at the foot of my class;/ Not only my Portraits/ But Landscapes and Seascapes/ And Genres are fellows, alas.” Although she professes a belief in her talents, she quickly subverts it– like Zoë Mozert’s “artist” who “must learn where to draw the line” or Gil Elvgren’s “just a little pin-up girl,” her aspirations are quickly squashed or minimized. Chan fantasizes that she herself paints a possible object of her own (hetero) fantasies, however: a musclebound man who flexes and proudly displays himself to her.

A similar set-up is depicted in an illustration reproduced on playing cards (probably ca. 1960) by Wolfgang M. Otto. Here, a bikini-clad girl displays her work, turning to wink at the viewer. As in Chan’s illustration, the canvas on her easel depicts a muscular man wearing briefs, emphatically flexing for the viewer. Yet her representation is barely a line drawing; quick geometric lines suggest his abs, pecs, and grin. Her palette displays mounds of paints (though mostly the greens and yellows of her bikini, hair bows, and high heels), and her paintbrush drips with the red paint used to create her line drawing/painting. Her friendly wink suggests intimacy and friendliness– these pin-up artists won’t be displacing the men illustrating them. Although she’s ostensibly focused on representing the flexible muscleman in front of her, her attention is still divided, drawn to the viewer.

Wolfgang M. Otto, illustration for playing card, ca 1960. Source: author’s collection, via eBay.

– Ellery Foutch

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