The art of pulps

It’s sole purpose was to grab the reader’s eye on the newsstand and make him hand over his dime. It featured dangerous men, scantily clad women, hideous monsters and far-out alien menaces. It was the painting on the cover of a pulp magazine.

Of the tens of thousands of canvas paintings from the tens of thousands of pulps published from the early 1900s through the 1950s, most are lost. Many were unwanted after being published and painted over or thrown away. Popular Publication’s warehoused paintings were destroyed in a fire. And Street & Smith’s paintings were discarded when there was no one interested in taking them n the 1960s.

Fortunately, there are a small percentage of paintings in the hands of pulp lovers. Many of us have seen original cover art reproduced in the books “Pulp Culture” and “Pulp Art.” Some of us have seen reproductions of pulp cover art by pulp fans. Few of us have seen the original paintings hanging on the wall before us. Now is your chance.

“Pulp Art: Vamps, Villains and Victors” from the Robert Lesser Collection runs May 16 through Aug. 31 at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. It’s an exhibition of more than 100 pulp cover paintings organized by guest curator Anne Pasternak, who is executive director of Creative Time Inc. Among the artists whose work is featured are Allen St. John, Raphael DeSoto, Virgil Finlay, H.L. Parkhurst, Frank R. Paul and George Rosen.

According to the BMA’s Adam Husted, the paintings in the exhibition will be organized by theme to “illuminate the popular culture of the inter-war years and reveal the racial and gender stereotypes of the time.

“By today’s standards, many of the images, which often focused on scantily clad women in jeopardy and manly acts of derring-do in exotic locales, betray sexist or racist attitudes. Examined more critically, however, they also tell of the deep-seated fears and concerns of different segments of society during an era of sweeping change.”

“There’s a lot that’s going on, and I think the paintings really represent … the struggles, the apprehensions, the fears as well as the excitement of America during that era,” Pasternak told the Associated Press.

In his book, “Pulp Art,” Lesser writes, “Why wasn’t this art saved? Why is it so hard to find today? Because pulp art is, to many, offensive art. Its pictures are filled with pain, torture, violence and the treat of sexual violation and death in motion. …

“Pulp art is hard whiskey: men’s art fueled on testosterone. Unknown and unrecognized, without a deep anchor sunk into the marketplace, it has remained — until the very present — a unique American heritage that burned brightly on newsstands for two decades, a lost inheritance future generations might never see or be able to claim. Its neglect has been an American cultural tragedy.”