Playboy Does as Much for Art as it Does for Pornography…

Playboy Does as Much for Art as it Does for Pornography…

By Madame Margherite

Since 1953 Playboy magazine has done as much for art as it has for pornography; artists such as LeRoy Neiman, Alberto Vargas and Olivia De Bardinis are proof of that. Every issue ever printed and circulated is saturated with art, right down to the hidden bunny on the cover of each issue- an iconic symbol coined by Art Paul.

Femlin creator, LeRoy Neiman, passed away in 2012 but his characters will forever be recognizable thanks to Hugh Hefner and Playboy Magazine. The artist began working for the erotic men’s magazine in 1955 and has been featured in every single issue since. The rambunctiously mischievous character was created per the request of Hefner to serve the purpose of contributing a visual aid to the “Party Jokes” section of the magazine. Today, a framed Femlin drawing signed by Neiman sells for between $7,000 & $8,000. The sexy yet silly black and white character was named “Femlin” for her gremlin-like characteristics. Perhaps, at first thought, the drawings may seem to have been no more than simple doodled comics, but they served a substantially valuable purpose. They added a soft edge to counter the explicit nature of the magazines content, while giving the subscribers a subliminal sense that it isn’t unmanly to admire art, or love it even.

The iconic bunny logo also created a humorous distraction to the magazine’s pornographic nature. This time using charm rather than stockings, which added an innocent appeal to the pictorial. When Art Paul originally sketched the sophisticated rabbit neither he or Hugh knew that it would become the staple of the magazine’s brand. It was designed only because the first idea of having a well dressed stag, or deer, posed a legal threat to Hefner by another magazine and had to be replaced. It was decided that the creature’s head would be replaced with that of a rabbit and the added element of playfulness was such a success that a running joke was set in motion by adding a hidden bunny on the covers of each issue; a tradition still held today. A drastically simple design had an incredibly complex psychological effect on the image of Playboy and that of its readers.

December 1943 Esquire issue censored by US Postal

In 1957 a much more subtle display of fine art was exhibited in the men’s magazine when Alberto Vargas’ Legacy Nude paintings were featured in a few issues of Playboy. Recognized previously as the painter for Esquire magazine, Vargas’ depiction of a woman’s provocatively tantalizing American spirit was revolutionary. While he was not the only artist painting pinup girls, he was responsible for making an era out of them. But his popularity did not mask the controversy surrounding his works and in 1943 the U.S. Post Office made a judicial move against Esquire, and although it was a failed attempt to take the magazine down, it was enough to end Alberto’s contract with the company. Hugh Hefner saved the man’s career in 1959 by hiring him to paint the renamed “Vargas Girls” exclusively for Playboy. Over the next sixteen years Vargas painted 152 pinups for Playboy. It wasn’t until 1974, upon the death of his wife Anna Mae, that Alberto would paint no more.

These scantily clad women that he drew redefined what it meant to procure sexual freedom, and the fact that the damsels depicted in his paintings flaunted their sexuality, their charisma, with such pride, elegance and grace that it launched a movement both in art and sex. Men subscribed to Playboy magazine could not deny their approval and reverence for these works, and while at the time some classified the images as pornography it was clear that this was indisputable art. And this art forged the liberation of American sexuality; Hefner knew it had to be replaced.

In the 1980s artists such as Patrick Nagel, contributed beautiful drawings of woman to the magazine, but a drastically different style. Vargas Girls hadn’t truly been replaced until 1985 when Olivia De Berardinis presented soon to be famous illustrations modeled after Bette Paige. The portraits of the iconic sex symbol proved to be comparable to the previous pin ups and Olivia was eventually moved to fill what was known as the Vargas Spot. The tastefully sexy artistic element had at last been revived in the pages of Playboy and has remained ever since.

Hugh Hefner has always sought out to find unique, unconventional, ground breaking ways to use sexuality and sexual content to camouflage the drawn attention to cultural movements and political statements. Changing stigmas, and defending the natural right to embrace red blooded desires, Hefner has always carried himself with a seemingly nonchalant conviction, using art to strategically mask his agenda and distract readers from his subconscious influence.

Without anyone even noticing it at the time, Playboy embedded a statement in the minds of men and society that you can love art and still be a masculine heterosexual.



Originally published Sunday, December 2, 2012

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