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Politcally Incorrect

PIN-UP DREAMS: The Glamour Art of Rolf Armstrong, By Janet Dobson and Michael Woodridge, Watson-Guptill: 246 pp., $39.95

June 02, 2002|CRISPIN SARTWELL | Crispin Sartwell is chairman of humanities at the Maryland Institute College of Art and the author, most recently, of "End of Story: Toward an Annihilation of Language and History."

Beauty is sometimes thought to be skin-deep, but glamour is not even that: It's applied to the surface of the body in the forms of makeup, coiffure and clothing. It's a kind of sexual glow or haze, an aura that surrounds an expensive and well-crafted presentation of the self as a sex object. Rarely has anyone understood and presented glamour as perfectly as the pinup artist Rolf Armstrong, whose calendars, posters and product packaging were popular from the teens to the '50s of the 20th century.

Though the text of "Pin-Up Dreams: The Glamour Art of Rolf Armstrong," by Janet Dobson and Michael Wooldridge, is fairly pedestrian biography, the images are absorbing, especially the many photographs of models posing in Armstrong's studio paired with the resulting painting. This allows us to see a pretty girl--for example, Armstrong's longtime muse, the aptly named Jewel Flowers--translated into a perfect target of desire. Though most of the models are clothed, the presentation of the breasts is always key: Armstrong's art provides glowing altarpieces of the cult of breast.

But perhaps the most important feature is something a bit more elusive: In every single image we get the sense that the model is enjoying, indeed reveling in, her sexual self-presentation. In our post-feminist era, that may be politically problematic, but it remains devastating in its erotic effectiveness.

Surely pretty women, among other folks, know that it can be a pleasure and a power to be looked at. And Armstrong was able to give women this power: They seem to be enjoying themselves no less in the studio photos than in the pinups themselves. Our absorption in the image is in part a reaction to the model's absorption in her self-provision.

A motif in this book, classic at least since Velazquez, is the image of a woman gazing at herself in a mirror. We are looking at her looking at herself; we are meant to enjoy looking at her looking at herself. Her glamour is something she makes for herself and that we happen to see, as if it were by chance, though of course the whole activity depends on the desire of the man who is stipulated as watching. This embedded series of erotic experiences is enacted as intensely in Armstrong's art as anywhere.

The art of pinup as employed, for example, by soldiers during World War II as an emblem of heterosexuality has gained in erotic allure in the intervening years. An innocence surrounds this material that, one suspects, was absent at the beginning.

In a world saturated with pornography and with near-pornographic images of the sort available in the latest Jennifer Lopez video, the eroticism of Armstrong's work is saturated both in sweetness and in nostalgia. And, Lord, the man could draw.

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