I have long adored this pair of New Yorker covers, illustrated by Owen Smith, for their attention-getting va-va-voom-ishness. The thing with Smith’s pulp derived work, though, is that it always has this aspect of impressionistic exaggeration to it, this bulging massiveness. In the past it always reminded me of social realist illustrations of the 20’s and 30’s – boxers and laborers, etc… And that thing being not my thing, that thing was always a hang up for me with Smith.
Looking again at these covers recently, his iconic flame haired femme fatale recalled something very different – the iconic flame haired femme fatales in Dante Rossetti’s Pre-Raphaelite paintings. This got me thinking… The Pre-Raphaelites rejected the classical stiffness of academic painting. They wanted to re-infuse high art with passion, detail, drama – visceral aesthetic heat. The human embodiment of that desire was more often than not a full lipped, square jawed, voluptuous, red haired fox.
That’s more like it. The echo of Pre-Raphaelite foxiness makes me like the covers even more, sure, but it also elevates them beyond “Look! Pulp! Sexy! Must not be the old starched collared, monocled New Yorker anymore!” They’re more of an articulated rallying cry – similar to the one their movie critic Pauline Kael made in the late 70’s when she titled her review collections Going Steady, I Lost it at the Movies, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. They insist that our encounters with culture should be lusty and passionate as well as rigorous and cerebral. Well, yes. Agreed. (This notion also happens to be the overarching theme of Rush’s song suite Cygnus X-1 Book II: Hemispheres, but that is, of course, another post….)
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) Lady Lilith
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) The Bower Meadow