Better known as the pin-up artist, Alberto Vargas (Peruvian, 1896-1983) dabbled early in his career as a poster and set designer in Hollywood. Although Vargas did not receive traditional academic training in the arts, he started his career by helping retouch his father’s photographs as a young boy in Peru and later travelling to Europe to study the masterpieces of artists he admired most like Ingres. After moving to New York to escape World War I, Vargas caught the eye of Florenz Ziegfeld and was hired to depict the Ziegfeld Follies for over a decade. He also became a freelancer in advertising for various clients and even began working for Paramount Pictures. However, with the looming Great Depression and likely a desire for a change in scenery, Vargas and his wife moved to Hollywood in the 1930s finding work in the movie industry.
Despite is his short stint in the “moving pictures” business in California, Vargas was quite prolific. He was commissioned by Warner Brothers and Twentieth Century Fox to depict their stars in the most flattering light. He also helped design stage sets as demonstrated in surviving watercolors such as “Birth of a Nation” (1935) and “Aztec Gold” (1938). The escapist qualities of these designs add another dimension to the fantasy world created by Vargas. Not only could he capture an idealized and seductive woman from every angle, but he could also evoke a dreamlike and foreign mood in his settings. Despite this interesting meandering of Vargas’ work in stage design, he returned his attention once again to the female form when he was hired by Esquire magazine in 1940. Thus, his claim to artistic fame as a pin-up illustrator began. Vargas used his experience in depicting follies and starlets to perfect that signature look of the all-American “Varga” beauty. In viewing Vargas’ oeuvre, it is intriguing how he either chose to focus on the idealized figure in the foreground or provide an imaginary landscape in the background - rarely does a combination of both appear in a single artwork. It makes one wonder what other fantasy settings Vargas had the potential to create besides sexy Americana…
Check out these websites for in-depth research on Alberto Vargas:
- Alberto Vargas Papers at the Archives of American Art housing diaries, journals, poems, and photographs
- "Alberto Vargas: the Esquire Pinups" at the University of Kansas including several essays from a 2001 exhibition
- The Artwork of Alberto Vargas at San Francisco Art Exchange selling lithograph and original watercolors from the Vargas estate
© Courtney Ahlstrom 2014-2016
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