The Joy Of… Pulp Art

2017 Artwork The Joy Of... Pulp Art article sketch

Well, for today, I thought that I’d talk about a historic genre of art that fascinates me every now and then. I am, of course, talking about pulp art. If you’ve never heard of this genre of art before, it used to grace the covers of virtually every “film noir” detective, horror and/or science fiction-themed publication in 1920s-50s America.

Pulp art is melodramatic. It’s both realistic and stylised. It’s lurid. The colours are often bold and vivid. It’s occasionally disturbing/ horrific. It’s sometimes stylishly glamourous. It’s painted with a level of detail that wouldn’t look out of place in an art gallery or on a 1980s heavy metal album cover. It’s old-fashioned. It’s occasionally timeless.

It’s a lot of things but, first and foremost, it is art in the truest sense of the word. Not only is it explicitly designed to grab the audience’s attention, but it often also contains lots of excellent examples of visual storytelling too.

In fact, I think that this is probably one of the reasons why it’s such a fascinating genre of art – there’s always something happening. There are gun fights, pouncing monsters, mysterious murders, steamy romantic encounters and shocking horrors. After all, the whole purpose of this genre of art was to give prospective readers a thrilling glimpse at the stories contained within a book or magazine.

This, ironically, is probably what led to the genre being overlooked in the history of western art. After all, it wasn’t shown in a gallery, it was mass printed on the covers of thousands of books and magazines. Back in 1920s-50s America, more people probably saw pulp novel covers than famous paintings.

Since the artists who made these covers didn’t have to worry about art critics and, since they were making these paintings to get people to read books, they had both a lot more creative freedom and a lot more incentive to create dramatic paintings.

In other words, pulp art is perhaps often closer to the true spirit of what art is meant to be about. It’s meant to make people think, it’s meant to make people curious, it’s meant to elicit emotion and it’s meant to look cool.

In a way, it has a lot more in common with prestigious historical paintings than with what was considered ” modern art” in the 1920s-1950s. I mean, just take a look at Caravaggio, some of his more dramatic paintings probably wouldn’t look out of place on the cover of a 17th century pulp novel.

It hearkens back to the days when art was primarily about storytelling (whether historical, religious and/or mythological) and, in this respect, it’s also somewhat related to the modern comic book. Yes, comics and pulp art co-existed in the 1940s-50s (and probably earlier), but pulp art often shows comic book-like scenes rendered in a level of detail that wouldn’t look out of place in an art gallery.

In addition to this, another awesome thing about pulp art is that it’s a reminder of a glorious time when artists were much more central to everyday life. After all, colour photography was still in it’s infancy and CG graphics hadn’t been invented yet. So, if someone wanted a dramatic cover for their book or magazine, they had to hire an artist.

I mean, just imagine a time where you could see lots of high-quality paintings whenever you walked into your local newsagent. It sounds awesome!

Yes, by modern standards, pulp art certainly shows it’s age (eg: for want of a less charged term, some of it would probably be considered “politically incorrect” these days). But, that aside, it’s also a reminder of what art should be. Art should tell stories, art should be attention grabbing and art should be something that elicits emotions. And, most importantly of all, it should be accessible to ordinary people – rather than hidden away in galleries.


Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂


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