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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Raphael Kirchner

French postcards from Kirchner's 1899 "Clover" series. Notice the valentine hearts
floating in amongst the St. Patrick's Day clover. His early work was pretty tame stuff.
Raphael Kirchner
Like many today, who grew up during the halcyon days of the 1950s in America, my knowledge of all things sexual was about equal to my knowledge of all things arty--rudimentary, at best. I was well into high school before I caught a glimpse in study hall of a pornographic playing card some kid had. I was over twenty-one before a ever read an erotic novel. (Does Peyton Place count?) Such things simply weren't available to kids, at least not in the "God's country" of southeastern Ohio. About the raciest such printed items I knew of were French postcards...not that I'd ever actually seen one, I was just aware of them from reading about them, I guess, though I don't recall where and when, even at that. Although artists such as Rembrandt, Rubens, and others long ago made somewhat more than pocket change from etching and selling erotic prints "under the counter," it wasn't until around 1900 with the advent of color lithography, that such things surfaced to become a threat to the "moral fiber" of society. However, given the moral fiber of French society at the time, it was probably more a reflection than a threat. Several left-bank "starving artists" were involved in the trade, but one of the best and most important was a transplanted Austrian portrait painter named Raphael Kirchner.

Girls with Flowers (series), 1902, Raphael Kirchner--how sweet.
1913, Alluring, but tame compared
to later issues during the war.
Kirchner didn't start out to paint and draw racy French postcards. In fact, his earliest ones, dating from 1899 (top) were downright chaste...even by French standards of the day. I first encountered Kirchner's work as I researched a piece I did on Vienna, Austria, a couple days ago. Kirchner was born in Vienna, in 1876 where, twenty years later, he attended the Academy of Fine Arts. Following graduation, the artist moved to Paris, at the time pretty much the center of the European art world. There he got his start doing illustrations for the French weekly news magazine, La Vie Parisienne (right). The magazine was pretty much a typical news stand publication not unlike dozens of others competing for the attention of the Parisian news hounds around the turn of the century. However, when the publishers sold it in 1905 to a new owner, the magazine changed its focus from "hard" news to the "fun and frivolity" of the Paris art, music, and fashion scene with classy art, cartoons, and most of all, beautiful young ladies. As the magazine changed, so did Kirchner's contributions to it. Within five years, the "beautiful young ladies" gradually began to eschew their "fashions", making it one of the earliest "girly" magazines in Europe, perhaps the world.

They Mayflies series, 1904
The Girl Cyclist series, 1899

From brown to blond was not an ad
for hair dye. I wonder how many
postcards you got for twelve francs.
The problem was, such magazines were expensive, becoming more so as their "readership" grew to the point that when the American dough boys arrived in Paris to help fight WW I, their General, John J. Pershing, warned them not to buy such trash. Of course, that immediately made the publication immensely popular among servicemen deprived of their sweethearts back home. Long before the war, though, Kirchner was among the first to realize that there was money to be made by purveying the came content as his employer's magazine in pocket-size form for pocket-size change (left). Kirchner though, being a successful artist, was also a man of taste. Unlike others selling the similar printed material, most of Kirchner's postcards were hardly more than suggestive, a far cry from the eroticism and outright photographic pornography of his competitors on the streets of Paris. Initially at least, his postcards, once soldiers tired of them, could actually be sent home to their sweethearts, though some men made a point of collecting as many as they could, often numbering well into the hundreds.

Kirchner's "Geisha" series, ca. 1905-10
Sweet Smoke, 1913,
Raphael Kirchner. Most from this
period were somewhat nakeder.
Actually, Kirchner's postcard images began about the same time as his work for La Vie Parisienne, and were often centered around holidays (two holidays as in the case of the samples seen at top). Eventually, as competition grew, and publishers gradually began demanding more and more cleavage, more leg, and finally the sanitized nudity French painters had long been entering in Paris' Salon competition, Kirchner and other succumbed to the image we now have of the "dirty pictures" of French origin. Sweet Smoke (right), from 1913, is no longer what a lonesome soldier would send his girl back home. (This one was about as "tame" as any I could find from this period.) Perhaps the most interesting element in Kirchner's work is that he usually used his wife as a model. Though he created several "sets" or series of similar images, Kirchner's "Geisha" series became his most popular, racking up sales in the neighborhood of 40,000 copies. One result was that after the war, the veterans brought Kirchner's "ladies" back to the U.S. at which time they became the impetus for the calendar "pinup," still popular on the walls of gas stations and garages as late as when I was a kid.

By the time the war broke out, Kirchner's girls weren't so demure. For some reason, he considered smoking to be sexy. It's a habit shared by many of his madamoiselles.
Flo Ziegfeld liked Kirchner's work.
By the time WW I broke out around 1914, Kirchner could well afford to emigrate to the safety of New York where he and his wife did pretty well, painting portraits, designing costumes for the musical theater, and making sexy posters for its "frenchy" Broadway productions, like the Ziegfeld's Follies (right). In fleeing to New York, Kirchner apparently left the seductive postcard business to others with less refined tastes. In New York, Kirchner tried his hand briefly at sculpting shortly before his death in 1917 at the age of forty-one. After her husband's death, his wife, Nina, attempted suicide and had to be institutionalized. Unlike most of his competitors in the postcard business, Kirchner not only became "collectible" but influential, particularly with regard to the work of Alberto Vargas (below). Even given my sheltered upbringing, thanks to Esquire and later, Hugh Hefner, Vargas was one artist with whom I was familiar.

By WW II, Alberto Vargas, under the influence of Raphael Kirchner, was keeping our servicemen all over the world "happy."


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