Monday, July 18, 2011

Invention of a cultural icon: The Vargas Girl

©Hearst Corporation
At San Francisco Art Exchange we are both proud and humbled to be the first art gallery in the world to hold an exhibition of paintings and drawings by Alberto Vargas, one of the most well known and revered American illustrators of the 20th century. Since our first exhibition in 1985, the first world retrospective of the artist’s work, his importance as the creator of some of the most recognizable icons in American art of pre- and post-World War II has become more greatly acknowledged in academia and among connoisseurs.

As the venue for over 95% of the fine art sales of his work globally, San Francisco Art Exchange’s mission has been to maintain and further the historic value and impact his paintings, his “Vargas Girls”, have had on 20th century art and culture.

We began as a gallery in 1983 and over the years have made it our goal to acknowledge and praise popular iconography as artistic expression, visual communication and cultural language. The Vargas Girl became an indelible symbol, first in the United States during World War II when Vargas’ painting were called “Varga Girls”. In the years during the war, every month a new Varga Girl would appear printed on her own page in each issue of Esquire Magazine. The pages were torn out of the magazines and pinned up on barracks walls or folded up and tucked into the inside pocket of a flack jacket. The images that smiled back at their admirers became treasured emblems that were eventually reproduced by hand by devoted airmen, soldiers and sailors on the fuselages of aircraft, on tanks and ships, on pilots’ jackets.

Sheer Elegance
©Hearst Corporation
Whether they were held by GI’s as good luck charms or as company mascots, each Varga Girl became synonymous with home, with camaraderie, with family or an awaiting sweetheart. In the fog of war, in the face of potential sacrifice, at the moments when attacks were countered by attacks, the Varga Girl was also a reminder in between patrols or fire fights that life was much more than about “kill or be killed” instincts. In their own way, they were reminders of one's humanity under inhumane circumstances. They were reminders of hope and the possibility of returning home to better times.

Ironically, these American icons were also valued trophies for German soldiers who collected them as they passed through villages where American soldiers had formerly been. The comparable dreams, hopes and aspirations of enemies were expressed in a common language in the form of Vargas’ smiling, kind and non-judgmental Varga Girls.

First Love
© Hearst Corporation
There are many stories and discussions regularly heard at our gallery from clients, artists, writers, friends and family of Alberto Vargas. Visitors from around the world come to our gallery to see original paintings by Alberto Vargas. They are of all ages, nationalities and cultures, men and women, of all social and financial backgrounds.

We are excited about the incredible opportunity this blog offers us. It allows us to share stories about Alberto, his models, his life and technique, the things he valued and experiences of a career that began before 1920 and carried on until his death in 1982. Having a running dialog with you here is as exciting as it is every day at our gallery and we truly look forward to your comments and questions going forward.

“One day I will paint a picture that can be shown anywhere in the world and, without my signature, people seeing it will say ‘that is a painting by Vargas.’” - Alberto Vargas

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Alberto Vargas: A romantic artist who followed his muse

Alberto Vargas
Alberto Vargas was probably the most famous painter of women in the twentieth century. Sometimes he was referred to as "The King of Pin-Up Artists." Other occasions he was called one of America's most famous illustrators. These are respectable acknowledgments to be sure. If one asked Vargas himself, however, we believe he would be less likely to embrace either label.

More than a pin-up artist, more than an illustrator, Vargas would most likely have seen himself as an artist who passionately followed his muse. Any artist who is drawn along, nearly helpless, by the command of his or her own muse follows with an allegiance that requires a complete devotion to the technical excellence that is worthy of their vision. Alberto was a student of many things, including art and art history. He would surely have seen his own reflection in the lives, passions and discipline of artists of the past as well as his contemporaries who strove to manifest with perfection the images of their hearts and minds.

Bessie Love, watercolor, 1919
© Max Vargas Estate
As songwriters and poets praise beauty and love with words and melody, Alberto Vargas wrote and sang his praises with a paint brush. “Show me something to paint that is more beautiful than a beautiful girl and I will paint it,” Alberto said when asked in an interview why he only painted women. Some might say that his being a man who painted women was driven largely by his maleness. This is true, but more from the perspective of someone who deeply appreciated the nuance, grace and power of a woman’s femaleness. Only an artist as sensitive and skilled as Alberto Vargas could effectively merge both the subjective and objective together in one expression, as he did consistently all of his career.

Feminine power is something Alberto admired profoundly while at the same time being profoundly overpowered by it himself. As any painter who is impacted by a subject, he was compelled to paint what fascinated, attracted and inspired him. This was something he did out of artistic necessity. He did not care to do anything else but paint and monetary gain had nothing to do with his daily drive. He certainly never made much money in his lifetime from painting. “I don’t care about the money,” he would say. “I care about my paintings because my name goes underneath.”

Persian Princess
© Max Vargas Estate
Vargas loved and embraced his subject, as any artist would in the case of his or her chosen artistic interests. He portrayed, interpreted, celebrated and praised the subjects he loved. The women of his paintings are alive, sincere, unique personalities and he was skilled in conveying this from painting to painting. One will find that each woman in his paintings is an individual with her own history and personality. This can be as easily seen in his work as if one was sitting at a beach or a cafe watching passers by. The individuality of each woman in his paintings is not lost, but is actually acknowledged and highlighted. For this reason, it is rare to find repetition in either treatment of the figure or in the faces of the women of his paintings even after decades of painting that began before 1920 through to his final years. Alberto’s Vargas Girls could be sisters or friends, but rarely the same woman.

The women of Vargas’ paintings do exude certain similar character traits, though. Each presents herself as honest, kind, bright, open, unpretentious, trusting and trustworthy. This string of attributes of character that Alberto infused into the subjects of his paintings can be seen in their faces, their eyes. Most make direct eye contact with the viewer, unashamed, unguarded, but confident. Vargas’ paintings could be called extended portraits in their individuality and aliveness of character more than simply figure studies. They were meant to be alive enough to engage the viewer in real time and, after many decades since they were first painted, they are still successful in doing just that.

As those who knew Vargas have often said, the moral and emotional characteristics of the persons in his paintings were also the same moral and emotional characteristics that others used in describing the artist himself. He, too, was honest, kind, trusting and trustworthy.

Nice and Easy
© Max Vargas Estate
From Vargas’s point of view, the secret of the strength and power of a woman in every sense was in her woman-ness. From painting to painting, he worked to imbue each with life and the essential presence of femininity, femaleness, that balances and completes life. He recognized with certainty that if he placed women on pedestals - as he most surely did with his beloved wife, Anna Mae - it was precisely for these reasons.

Along with skin, hair, lips, and eyes, if Alberto could have “painted in” the sound of a woman’s voice as well, yet another elegant contrast to a man, so that we could both see and hear her, we believe he would have.

So, yes, as a male artist he painted woman with both the passion of a man and with the highest respect an artist shows to their subject, that is to praise, to celebrate, and to share that praise and celebration with any who come in contact with his paintings. Alberto Vargas’ paintings are songs we hear with our eyes.