Laura Macfehin takes a look at the startling art of Pulp illustrator Margaret Brundage.
Margaret Brundage’s art caused shock and consternation in her lifetime, as well as selling countless magazines of fantasy literature and inspiring artists like Frank Frazetti. She also campaigned for free love, free speech and civil rights in a lifetime that encompassed an ongoing art practise and a commitment to a bohemian lifestyle.
Sweet Home Chicago
She was born Margaret Hedda Johnson on December 9th 1900. She was raised mainly by her mother and grandmother, both devout Christian Scientists, after her father died. She attended McKinley High School in Chicago alongside Walt Disney (she graduated; he didn’t).
Upon graduating High School she immediately got work providing fashion illustrations for Chicago newspapers, and she continued her education at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, where Walt Disney was again a fellow student (Disney later said that he had approached Brundage with a view for her providing design work for the animated feature Snow White, but that the distance between Chicago and Los Angeles precluded her involvement). She did not graduate and later said it was due to her poor lettering skills, but she soon found a publisher for her work in the form of Weird Tales magazine.
Weird Tales was established in the early twenties as a pulp magazine that focussed on pulp stories in the fantasy and horror genre. They were early publishers of writers who would later become cult favourites like H.P Lovecraft and Seabury Quinn. In the Cthulu mythos was first presented to readers in its pages with The Call of Cthulu being published in 1928. Other genre classics such as Conan the Barbarian and the occult detective Jules de Grandin were also introduced to the public through Weird Tales.
Brundage had already illustrated covers for pulp publications like Oriental Stories when she had her work accepted by Weird Tales. Her vivid style, featuring highly eroticised female characters were an immediate hit with the consumers of pulp fiction. Not all the authors concurred, some complaining that her covers had nothing do with the stories featured inside, but others, like Seabury Quinn were enthusiastic about her art and even began including scenes in their stories that they thought could play into her style of illustration.
During the prohibition years, and at the same time as undertaking illustration work Brundage had also found employment at the infamous bohemian speakeasy The Dill Pickle Club, and it was there she met her husband Myron ‘Slim’ Brundage; a hobo/house painter who was heavily involved in radical politics.
Together they would have one child, Kerlynn. Their politics and attraction to each other were strong but their marriage had a lot of stressors– largely his drinking and womanising; and they divorced in 1939. Kerlynn was raised as Margaret had been, largely by his mother and grandmother.
In the late 1930s Weird Tales and other pulp publications came under a lot of scrutiny for their cover art. Bylaws were passed in some cities limiting what could be displayed on newsstands. Brundage had always published as ‘M. Brundage’ leaving her gender undisclosed, but in attempt to assuage critics Weird Tales now revealed that their cover artist was a woman.
The affect of this disclosure was quite the opposite. That these pictures had been produced by a woman was largely received as proving more deviance rather than less for under the perceived notions of femininity it was an outrageous that such images could be conceived of by a female.
Rumours that lasted for years arose around Brundage– including that she used her own daughter as a model. This being fuelled perhaps by the double fantasy that there existed in life a woman such as those featured in the pictures and that her deviancy included some sort of incestuous bent.
At this time Weird Tales underwent a change of ownership, moving its publishing to New York. The controversy surrounding Brundage’s sex had thrown a bit of a pall over her work for Weird Tales, but this move was largely its death knell. Brundage worked almost exclusively in pastels on illustration board, a medium that did not travel well, and the New York publishers therefore looked for other illustrators to provide their cover art.
Brundage continued to produce fantasy art in pastels, as well as oils and pen over the rest of her lifetime, although she never found a regular publisher again. Today her work is highly collectible and has been published in several coffee table books celebrating her unique and uncanny style. She also continued to raise her son and be heavily involved in radical politics until her death in 1976.