Friday, April 3, 2009

Rockwells and Elvgrens and Vargas, oh my! The Martignette Collection has arrived

April 3, 2009
Posted by Noah

The Charles Martignette Collection of American Illustration Art has arrived at Heritage – as of last week, I believe – and I still don’t necessarily know how to write about it. Never one to let not knowing what was going to happen stop me from rushing in at full tilt, I’ve decided to charge ahead blindly and see if I can make some sense of this gargantuan, stellar collection. For once, though, no one could accuse me of torturing syntax or over-hyperbolizing when I saw that this is easily the most important collection of illustration art to ever come on the market.

This collection hits me in the gut. It is as important as a survey of American art over the past century-plus as it is as a timeline of prevailing attitudes, ideas and sociological constructions over the same course of time. It moves from the formal (Howard Pyle and Brandywine) to the idealistic (Rockwell) to the controversial and profane (Elvgren and Vargas), and absolutely everywhere in between. To try to sum up the depth and breadth of Charles Martignette’s passion, as embodied by this collection, is ridiculous. He invented the field, period.

Martignette fell in love with pin-up art in the early 1970s and made a concerted effort to track down as many of the original illustrations as he could from the artists themselves, their surviving spouses or their families. In a lot of cases he got canvases for a song that are now worth well into the six figure range. His love of illustration art quickly spread from glamor paintings to encompass all periods of American illustration. He became the foremost expert in the field, wrote books on the subject and was a driving force behind what is now a legitimate niche in the field of fine art. I defy most anyone to look at the best examples in this collection and tell me they don’t satisfy all codified and subjective criteria to exist as bonafide “Art.”

What Martignette was really known for, however, was the pin-up, and you can’t talk about pin-ups without mentioning the names of the greats like Gil Elvgren and Alberto Vargas, both of whom have established track records of greatness at Heritage. Both also had, shall we say, a certain fondness for the female form. It’s this very fact that will make the collection and its subsequent auctioning so attractive to many and so divisive to others. Vargas exhibited his “appreciation” a little more freely than Elvgren. Elvgren exposed his subjects just enough to be titillating but not enough to kill a sense of mystery and – dare I say it? – innocence.

When we sent out a press release a week ago on this collection I got a good handful of responses back from people – inside and out of the company – that took issue with the use of an Elvgren in promoting the acquisition, the same one you can see up top here. Nobody was threatening mayhem or protests, they simply wanted me to understand that they would have appreciated a less overt display from the collection, like one of the pieces we used further down in the press release, like the one you see next to this graph, an amazing J.C. Leyendecker Saturday Evening Post cover from the 1940s. I am not so benighted that I couldn’t appreciate those concerns. Nor am I going to say that the forms that Elvgren portrayed aren’t some of the finest representations I’ve ever looked at – both from an aesthetic and visceral viewpoint. That’s a politic way of saying I think some a’ them girls are real purty…

Here’s the thing: Martignette was known for his pin-up art, and for his wide appreciation of how the genre evolved. Did he like to look at beautiful women in states of semi-undress? Okay, yes. Did he evolve as a collector and refine his palate as his tastes and appreciations grew and changed? Without a doubt. It is in his expansiveness that Martignette made a difference in American art, helping to expand the definition to include a vast array of brilliance across a century that far exceeded whatever boyish lasciviousness may – or may not – have played into the initial spark that awoke the world class collector in him.

The collection, 4300-strong and easily worth in the range of $20 million, will be auctioned off over the course of a year or so here, starting in July, I believe. The job of cataloging the collection has just begun and will take over the better part of an undisclosed location lucky enough to witness its scope. You can bet that I will follow the auctioning of this art closely, especially the marquee lots – here’s a link to the Heritage Press release, which highlights just a touch of them – and you can bet I’ll check back in when they are getting ready to hit the block. It should be a fun year.

It is getting on 6 a.m., my coffee cup is empty, and I have to be getting to work. Have a good weekend.