Alberto Vargas: The Figure as “Pin-Up”

Best known for work that nearly defined the “Pin-up”, Alberto Vargas is recognized for depicting and perfecting the image of female sexuality in the first half of the 20th century. Having worked with Esquire and more famously Playboy magazines, some would be quick to write Vargas off as a soft pornographer, and he’s never expressed any shame in that. However, from the perspective of TheGreatNude, Vargas was an artist dedicated to the figure, and produced a body of work that embodied the meaning of female sexuality and in effect became standards of feminine desire for a generation of American men.

In the early 1920’s, Vargas solidified his career as a successful artist working with the Ziegfeld Follies, and later working as a regular illustrator for Esquire magazine, where he created the infamous “Varga Girl.” While restricted in his ability to paint fully nude figures for these publications, Vargas was able to convey a comparable essence, stylistically depicting his women as playful, coy, and full of energy, further solidifying and advancing the concept of the Pin-Up as an icon of sexual freedom.

In the 1950’s Playboy was the master of men’s literature, delivering well researched articles simultaneously with artistic and sexual content. For decades, Vargas’ art works had a premier spot following the magazine’s premier feature: The Centerfold. It was this venue that gave Vargas the freedom to paint his strongest nudes at the peak of his career, and he produced many of his most iconographic works during this time.

Similar themes are still echoed today in media. The clothes of his dressed figures are back seated to the personality of those whom he illustrates. Then the works might have been provocative and protested by some, but today exist as an almost puritanical approach to the hybrid of class and sexuality. Like many other artists Vargas was ahead of his time.

In the fashion industry one of the critiques of excellence is a key understanding of the human form. Designers who earn the right to stand on the pedestals they inhabit prove to be masters of understanding a woman’s body. Vargas is no different. Being one of the early artists to use air-bushing as a media, his comprehension of the tenderness of the human form is consistently proven. From a figurative perspective, his works are academic, proportions accurate and musculature noted. With his nudes, the personality and gestures of his figures alone must be conveyed without clothing to serve as an interpreter. Everything we learn of Vargas’ nude figures must be taken from their stance, something Vargas proves to be a master at depicting. One thing Vargas staples is his figures having red nail polish, the figures hands long and agile. The passion and confidence of their gestures reinstated with an attention getting red.

Throughout his lifetime many books have been written about Vargas but The Great Nude’s pick is the self-titled; Alberto Vargas: Works From the Max Vargas Collection. Showing more than just pin-ups the pages give light to not only the period context that Vargas was working in but to what lies beneath the pin-up.

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