Passion For Art

>>>Ernest Chiriaka

Esquire’s search for a Varga replacement included such gifted commercial artists of the late 1940s and early 1950s as Ward Bennett, Ren Wicks, Robert Patterson, Eddie Chan and Al Moore. The latter was close to being declared winner, but ultimately Ernest Chiriaka [Chiriacka?] (born 1920) was as close to a new pin-up star as the magazine came. Chiriaka contributed solo pin-up calendars to Esquire from 1953 through 1957. Chiriaka’s women (they weren’t really “girls”) were sultry and glamorous, often exotically costumed, and sometimes completely un-costumed. These were steamy, sophisticated, not at all wholesome pin-ups. Like De Mers, Chiriaka denoted the post-war modern approach striking design juxtaposed with realistically rendered women. The use of gouache allowed for more gradations of skin tone, trading supple Elvgren smoothness for a palpably sensual earthiness.

In the 1940s and ’50s, Chiriaka’s other area of expertise oddly – enough, considering the modern elegance of his sex goddesses – was western pulp and paperback covers. If the pay scale was any indication, pulp publishers valued painters more than writers. Pulp artists typically earned $50 to $100 for their 20-by-30-inch cover paintings, which they might finish in a day. Atop painter could get $300. “Sometimes the publishers wanted a particular scene on a cover,” says Chiriacka, who painted hundreds of covers for Dime Western Magazine and other pulps in the 1940s. “But otherwise they just wanted something exciting or lurid or bloody that would attract attention.” Publishers might even hand their writers an artist’s sketch and tell them to cook up a story to go with it. Like other ambitious painters, Chiriacka viewed pulp art as a way to pay his bills and simultaneously hone his craft. Eventually, he landed higher-paying work for “the slicks” – glossy family magazines like Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post. “The pulps were at the very bottom of the business,” he says. He signed his pulp paintings “E.C.,” if at all. “I was ashamed of them,” he confesses.

“Chiriacka’s attitude was typical,” says Anne Pasternak, guest curator of the Brooklyn exhibition. “The artists, many of whom were trained in the finest art schools in the country, considered this a lowbrow activity. Nonetheless, their job was to make the most startling images they possibly could because there were so many pulp titles on the newsstand, and the competition was tough.”

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