The modern pin-up has its origins on the beach. That’s not so surprising; from the ancients’ early visions of sirens and mermaids to Botticelli’s The Birth
of Venus and beyond, the beach has long been home to idealised feminine beauty, both as its birthplace (after all, it’s where life on land first emerged)
and as a space for it to reign free as a powerful force of nature.
In the span of human history, the seaside was all but deserted until relatively recently. People eschewed the coast’s relatively harsh conditions for the
safety and shelter of inland living. As civilisation evolved, the beach was rediscovered as a place of aquatic therapy that combined pleasure and pain in
exciting juxtaposition. Over time, this desire to escape — and, thereby, to temporarily suppress — the unruly demands of modern life served to heighten its
power as a theatre for sexual expression. The bathing beauty quickly became understood as an articulation of freedom, rebellion, and desire.
That desire was, from the very beginning, beguiling to advertisers. The early history of poster advertising — for seaside resorts and beyond — was full of
bathing beauties and dancing girls. In addition, the widespread popularity of cycling and cigarette smoking was seen as dangerously radical and shocking
when undertaken by women …and, irresistibly attractive. From that triangulation of consumption, style and pleasure, the advertising industry from the late
19th century to about 1920 developed a series of new and contemporary female archetypes that served as visual expressions of desire in consumer society.
Lot 67, Leonetto Cappiello, Cognac Monnet (1927), lithograph in colours
Speed Movement and Desire
After about 1920, that triangulation of consumption, style, and pleasure was made visible in popular culture through poster images and photography,
expressed as a feminine ideal that synthesised movement, speed and attractiveness. The new archetype of feminine beauty (and of women as better-empowered
consumers) had begun to speed up! Such associations were quickly assimilated into the visual rhetoric of fashion, and in the course of the 20th century,
the French fashion industry progressively moved from the statuesque model of couture to something much more immediate and dynamic. Photographers from
Jacques Henri Lartigue onwards, including Martin Munkasci and Richard Avedon, have exploited the implicit speed and movement of the photographic moment to
express feelings of desire and the transcendent potential of fashion.
That transition was partly facilitated early on by the First World War. Soldiers of the Western Front fueled an enormous industry for producing provocative
post-card images of women. After the war, French artists and poster designers expanded the visual expression of that industrialised image-making through a
new set of dynamic and expressive forms to describe the feminine ideal. The fashion illustration poster style of Rene Gruau and Bernard Villemot, along
with the glamorous images of Jean Gabriel Domergue, modernised the image of French fashion. Their images of women became an international — and instantly
recognisable — visual code for sophisticated and liberated lifestyle choices, whether that meant wearing Dior or vacationing in the South of France.
Lot 65, Roger Broders, Antibes (c. 1928), lithograph in colours
As this glamorous, sexualised, consumer-based image of women evolved in the 20th century, it became increasingly influenced by the imagery of Hollywood
celebrity culture, giving rise to the pin-up as we know it best today.
The Golden Era
One of the unexpected legacies of the global conflicts of the 20th century has been the international export of American glamour. Stars like Rita Hayworth,
Betty Grable, and Marilyn Monroe graced the barrack-room lockers of military servicemen and the sides of warplanes during World War II and beyond. (Alberto
Vargas, from Peru, was the master of these kinds of sleek, and perfectly air-brushed, images.) Since then, especially in the 1950s, a succession of
American film actresses has defined the contemporary visual expression of desire — popularly expressed as the modern pin-up.
Lot 33, André de Dienes, Marilyn Monroe, Tobey Beach, 1949 , gelatin silver print
It’s surprising that these kinds of images generally remain beyond the purlieu of serious study. The technical and historical development of the genre
belongs to a tradition of image-making that is every bit as serious as those associated with traditionally more elevated cultural forms. Joseph Marie Lo
Duca, co-founder of the French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema, was amongst the first to recognise the cultural significance of these images. Their
explicit appeal to movement and its association with sex and consumerism has made these images among the most iconic and representative of the modern era.
Today, the global consumer market is driven by an international advertising industry that has become expert in the visual communication of glamour, allure
and sophistication. These meanings find their most effective expression in the shiny, sparkling, and dynamic pin-up image…it’s no coincidence that these
women so often look as though they are coming from the sea!