Pulp art reflects America's past

— A group of American women is herded into a California concentration camp under a soldier's watchful eye. The Japanese flag waves from a pole.

The painting "San Francisco Flames in the Night" was created for a fiction magazine's cover in February 1941 -- 11 months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and a year before President Roosevelt ordered the internment of Japanese-Americans.

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AP Photo

Collector Robert Lesser admires George Rozen's painting "The Grove of Doom" at the Brooklyn Museum of Art during a press preview of "Pulp Art: Vamps, Villains and Victors from the Robert Lesser Collection." The painting, featured in The Shadow Magazine in 1933, is part of an exhibit that examines how what was considered a "lowbrow" commercial art form is actually a visual reflection of the currents running through American society in the years between the world wars.

It is one of more than 125 paintings in an exhibit of pulp magazine art at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The show offers historical perspective of a commercial art form, exploring it as a visual reflection of American society in the years between the world wars.

"There's a lot that's going on, and I think the paintings really represent ... the struggles, the apprehensions, the fears as well as the excitement of America during that era," said Anne Pasternak, who served as the museum's guest curator for the exhibit.

"Pulp Art: Vamps, Villains, and Victors From the Robert Lesser Collection" opened Friday and runs through August.

Pulp magazines, named for the cheap paper on which they were printed, were immensely popular from the 1920s through the 1940s.

They came in a number of genres -- adventure, mystery, Westerns, science fiction, military escapades. They offered suspenseful tales of vigilante justice and derring-do, of shapely damsels in distress, scientific marvels and science gone wrong. Many were written by famous authors such as Ray Bradbury, Zane Grey and Louis L'Amour who wrote under pseudonyms.

In an increasingly competitive market, publishers relied on artists to create colorful, eye-catching and often melodramatic covers to attract readers. Tens of thousands of the paintings were done, but most were destroyed, with the remaining ones now numbering in the hundreds.

Several paintings -- by some of the most important cover artists of the day, including J. Allen St. John, Rafael de Soto and Virgil Finlay -- cast Asians as villains, echoing an anti-immigrant sentiment. Some show scantily clad women desperate to be rescued from a horrifying situation, while in others women -- also scantily clad -- fight back against their attacker.

"I think the artists in these paintings depict ... a real reflection on our morality," Pasternak said. "It's really about all the change that was going on in this remarkable era and how people were both excited and fearful of that change."

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