Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Margaret Brundage: the Frank Frazetta of the 1930s

original painting for the November 1935 issue of WEIRD TALES

Margaret Hedda Johnson was born in Chicago on December 9, 1900. In the early 1920s she attended the Chicago Academy of Fine Art where she studied fashion design. Afterwards, she became a freelance artist as a fashion illustrator for various newspapers. She married Myron "Slim" Brundage in 1927 and they had one son, Kerlyn. The marriage didn't last long and they separated, leaving Margaret to care for her child alone, as well as a mother in poor health, with little, if any, financial support from her husband. They divorced in 1939.

Desperate to get away from the mundane world of fashion -- and of black and white art -- she brought her portfolio to WEIRD TALES, "the magazine of the bizarre and unusual", whose offices were located in Chicago. The magazine was founded by publisher Clark Henneberger in 1923, and Farnsworth Wright took over as editor in 1924 after former editor Edwin Baird was fired. After seeing a drawing of an Oriental dancer, they gave her work as a cover artist for another of their titles, ORIENTAL STORIES, despite her limited knowledge of colour reproduction. Her first cover was for the Summer 1932 issue. (ORIENTAL STORIES would soon be renamed THE MAGIC CARPET; it only ran sporadically from October 1930 to January 1934.)

Brundage's first cover: ORIENTAL STORIES, Summer 1932 issue

She moved on to the more famous WEIRD TALES with the September 1932 issue, and would paint a total of 66 covers for the magazine, including all nine of the Conan covers. One of those covers helped make the issue a sell-out. Illustrating "The Slithering Shadow", a Conan tale by Robert E. Howard, Brundage's cover showed a naked blonde in bondage being whipped by a scantily-clad brunette, set against a crimson background and exaggerated shadows.

original painting for the September 1933 issue of WEIRD TALES

She became the most prolific of the magazine's cover artists, with an unbroken streak from June, 1933 to September, 1936. (There was no August issue for 1936.) Her lurid covers were sensational and controversial, if their letters page, “The Eyrie”, is any indication. While fans -- and many of them were female -- didn't object to the nudity, some thought the covers were misrepresenting the magazine as sleazy trash rather than as a distinguished periodical of weird fiction. But Brundage's nude covers sold issues, and that was all that Wright needed to know. She signed her name "M. Brundage". This is how she was credited in the magazine until the February 1935 issue, where her full name is given, identifying her as a woman. (This may have been an attempt at mollifying the critics who thought the covers were sexist and misogynistic.)

original painting for the January 1936 issue of WEIRD TALES

Brundage's fashion training all but went out the window. Occasionally she would sneak in a pretty dress, but usually her soft-skinned heroines were either completely naked or covered in nothing more than a wisp of gossamer. With wide eyes and parted lips, these damsels in peril were being menaced by monsters or dagger-wielding cultists; often they were in bondage being whipped by evil priestesses; sometimes they were the ones in control, running naked through the snow with wolves. In any case, they were young and built like goddesses. There was little, if any, background in the composition, but always there were sexy, shapely females to titillate the viewer. Actually, there was a female on all but three of Brundage's covers (the April, May and August 1935 issues being the exceptions). Of Brundage's 66 WEIRD TALES covers, a dozen featured bondage and/or flagellation.

original painting for the January 1935 issue of WEIRD TALES

Brundage visited Farnsworth Wright at the WEIRD TALES offices at least once a month. A particular scene from a story was chosen for her to illustrate, often one of bondage and sadism or with lesbian overtones, and Brundage would submit a few pencil sketches. Wright would then choose one to be rendered for the cover. Not surprisingly, writers would sometimes fit a bondage and whipping sequence into their yarn hoping to make the cover.

A few vintage Brundage illustrations reproduced in the fanzine XENOPHILE #28 (November/December 1976)

Brundage rarely used models to work from. Occasionally a friend would pose for the female figures, but she usually worked from the pure ether of her imagination. She was paid $90 per cover, always rendered in pastels, her chosen medium, and usually measuring 20 inches in height, but with varying widths. She was rarely asked to make corrections and, under Wright's editorship, never asked to cover up her nudes. "They would always pick the one with the least amount of clothing," Brundage said. What's more, she was asked "to make larger and larger breasts".

original painting for the August 1934 issue of WEIRD TALES

WEIRD TALES was sold in 1938 to a New York publisher, where the editorial offices were also located. Dorothy McIlwraith was brought in to assist Wright. Office politics and health issues forced Wright to resign by 1940, and he died later that year from Parkinson's disease. McIlwraith became the new editor.

original painting for the October 1935 issue of WEIRD TALES

Because Brundage could no longer deliver the artwork in person it had to be shipped, which meant she had to create covers in much less time. This, coupled with the fact that the pastels would smear during shipping causing a need for corrections and more shipping, marked the end of Brundage's reign as leading cover artist for the magazine. She made one attempt at oils, which the editors didn't like, and after the October 1938 issue she only did eight more WEIRD TALES covers, the last being for the January 1945 issue. (She did no covers for the 1939 issues.) The magazine went to bi-monthly status after 1939, so even if she had remained Queen of the Pulps her earnings would have been halved. In the late 1930s under new ownership the covers were no longer risque. Wright's two other discoveries, Virgil Finlay and Hannes Bok, both amazing artists, were on hand to provide technically proficient and bizarre covers (respectively), and help bring the magazine back to its weird roots. The magazine continued until September 1954.

Brundage, one of the few women artists working for pulp magazines, lived mostly in obscurity and poverty. She continued painting and gave some brief interviews in the 1970s. She died April 9, 1976, predeceased by her son, who died in 1972.

original painting for Brundage's first WEIRD TALES cover, September 1932

Her covers for Weird Tales are highly valued by collectors, and the originals sell for large sums at auction. The cover for the September 1932 issue of Weird Tales (her first for that magazine) sold for $50,000 in 2008, and in 2010 the cover for the January 1936 issue sold for $37,000. Often overlooked, often underrated, the best of Margaret Brundage's pastel covers for the pulps deserve to be hanging in museums!

Here's a selection of WEIRD TALES covers:

October 1932

March 1933

The original art for the March 1933 issue

cover for a CONAN story, June 1933

July 1933

cover for a CONAN story, September 1933

October 1933

November 1933

December 1933

The original art for the December 1933 issue

January 1934

March 1934

April 1934

CONAN cover, May 1934

CONAN cover, August 1934

cover for a CONAN story, September 1934

October 1934

November 1934

cover for a CONAN story, December 1934

Margaret Brundage gets swiped: this small ad appeared in the April 1935 issue of WEIRD TALES.

January 1935

February 1935

June 1935

cover for a CONAN story, November 1935

CONAN cover, December 1935

January 1936

March 1936

The original art for the March 1936 issue

April 1936.  A letter by Robert E. Howard was published in The Eyrie for the June 1936 issue of WEIRD TALES, praising this cover: "The colour combination is vivid and attractive, the lady is luscious, and altogether I think it's the best thing Mrs Brundage has done since she illustrated my Black Colossus."  (See the June 1933 cover.)

cover for a CONAN story, July 1936

November 1936

January 1937

March 1937

May 1937

June 1937

Original art for the June 1937 issue (in this photo, Brundage's painted border design is obscured by a frame)

September 1937

October 1937

November 1937

January 1938

At the famous Ackermansion:  Forry Ackerman once owned Margaret's original pastel painting  (upper right) for the January 1938 cover of WEIRD TALES.  (Photo from FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND #24, August 1963.)  Ackerman met Brundage and was granted a rare interview for THE ALCHEMIST  #5 (February 1941), a mimeographed science fiction/fantasy fanzine.  Typical of his alliterative style, he called her "fantasy fiction's foremost exponent of the unclothed feminine form".

March 1938

May 1938

June 1938

August 1938

July 1942

Margaret Brundage, 1948

(The illustrations for Robert E. Howard's Weird Tales stories can be found here)