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The Real Vargas

One hundred years after his birth, Alberto Vargas is still regarded as "The King of Pin-Up Art."
Paul Chutkow
From the Print Edition:
Demi Moore, Autumn 96

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Again, though, The Vargas Girl, with the "s" on Vargas now restored, became a signature attraction for her home publication. Through Playboy, she stirred the imagination and the young loins of the baby boomer generation and the countless others seduced by the intoxicating spirit of "The Swinging 60s." Playboy now became a fixture on college campuses across America, as each month Hefner's "Playboy Philosophy" paid homage to the unbridled joys of sexual liberation. In the tribal rites of millions of red-blooded adolescent boys coming of age in America, there were now three secret talismans of male prowess and social cool: the Trojan in the wallet, the Playboy centerfold and The Vargas Girl. Vargas was back on top, The King of Pin-up, and his Vargas Girl now reclaimed her place in America's popular culture and collective imagination.

For Vargas, though, this new wave of success and recognition was small consolation when considered against what could have been. The cute, kittenish, inhumanly buxom Vargas Girls being ordered up by Playboy carried only the faintest echoes of the artistry of "Spanish Lace" and "Caja Eric," those early works that had announced the arrival in America of a gifted young painter from Peru. The serious artistic ambitions Vargas had cultivated at the Louvre and evident in his early work were now only a distant, fading memory. The essence of tragedy is great talent or potential wasted; that surely applies to Alberto Vargas.

Still, Vargas had his accolades and his glory. In 1958, his hometown of Arequipa showered him with honors, and Esquire and Playboy still pay him periodic--and self-serving--tributes. Playboy once even enlisted John Updike to pay homage to Vargas and his work. A sub-headline hailed the piece, "The legendary man of letters pays tribute to the Prometheus of pinup." But Vargas has not gotten any comparable tributes or recognition from America's arts establishment. No prominent museum has ever done a serious retrospective of his art or his impact on American illustration.

"Alberto's a very neglected artist," says Paul. "Alberto just doesn't get the recognition he deserves. Norman Rockwell had museum exhibitions, but not Alberto." A few years ago, Paul approached Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art about putting on a retrospective of Vargas' work. But the "Swinging 60s" are long gone, and Vargas' art is just not compatible with today's conservative attitudes, Paul says. "The response I got was, 'Oh, no, how can you show Alberto?'"

The ironies here are tragic. Vargas was a profoundly moral man. He was faithful to his wife, stayed away from alcohol and, as a Latin gentleman of the old school, believed in codes of honor and was always as good as his word. He worked hard, became a U.S. citizen, and when war came, he selflessly devoted his art and his time to the war effort. He was always discreet and polite with the women who posed for him, and his paintings reveal nothing but the deepest respect and reverence for women. In fact, one of his most difficult moments at Playboy concerned the issue of pubic hair; he just did not feel comfortable putting it on his Vargas Girl. "I was a little bashful about it at the beginning because of Anna Mae," he was quoted as saying.

What happened to this shy, quiet, honorable man? Hollywood blacklisted him and Esquire exploited him. In 1943, while U.S. bombers were flying into battle with The Vargas Girl proudly on their beak, bureaucrats at the U.S. Post Office were busy branding Vargas' art obscene. And after spending his entire life paying homage to The American Woman, imagine how Vargas must have felt in the 1970s and '80s when some feminist groups denounced his art as demeaning to women. And why, when many art critics and historians put him on a level with Norman Rockwell, has there been no major retrospective of Vargas' work? The problem, of course, is his subject matter; while almost every conceivable form of violence and human degradation is regularly displayed on TV, and at times in our museums, no one seems inclined to celebrate the open sensuality of the Vargas nude.

"If Alberto had painted landscapes with the same love as he painted women, he would be recognized today as one of the great landscape artists," says San Francisco gallery owner Theron Kabrich, who has been championing Vargas' work for more than a decade. "If you eliminate the subject and just look at his brilliance as a technician, his reputation would be assured. But the form of his subject just does not allow people to understand his brilliance as an artist and his skill as a painter."

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of Vargas' birth, Kabrich and his partner, James Hartley, have put together a show of Vargas originals and high-quality reproductions at their gallery, The San Francisco Art Exchange. They present Vargas work spanning six decades, beginning with the brilliant early paintings such as "Spanish Lace," "Caja Eric," and several views of Anna Mae as she really was, before Vargas turned her into his prototypical Vargas girl. Since 1985, when they began selling Vargas originals and high-quality reproductions, Kabrich and Hartley have registered sales of $14 million. The original "Spanish Lace" is now on sale for $165,000, an original 1947 watercolor of Ava Gardner is on sale for $195,000 and Vargas' famous "Diana," with the goddess flanked by two Borzois, is available for $325,000. More than half the gallery's Vargas sales have been prints, the rest originals.

For two men with backgrounds as dealers in fine art, their relationship with Vargas' work and reputation has been at times one of frustration but always a labor of love. "When we started displaying Alberto's work, people said to us, 'Are you crazy? You're doing girlie art!' " says Hartley. "But from the beginning, we saw Vargas' women as icons and very important to twentieth century art."

Some of the biggest sellers at the gallery are from a series of exquisite paintings known as "The Legacy Nudes," a group of 12 paintings Vargas did as both an homage to Anna Mae and a guarantee of her financial security. But Anna Mae did not outlive Alberto. In 1974, she suffered a terrible fall in their bungalow in Westwood and never fully recovered.

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