Arts & Books

Art review: The unsettling visions of a New York ad man

Mac Conner’s illustration for Martha Gellhorn’s ‘The Good Husband’ (1955)

Mac Conner: A New York Life
House of Illustration, until June 28

No more loneliness, no more beige, and certainly no more fabric rationing. Post-war New York was all about the full skirt with wasp waist and lipstick bright enough to entice the suits on the subway. It was about a lot more besides, but the ad men of Madison Avenue preferred aspiration to observation.

In the 1950s Manhattan became advertising central. Designer McCauley (“Mac”) Conner, now 101 and still living in New York, went from illustrating wartime training manuals to filling the pages of Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping and others with bright, optimistic scenes of children experimenting with the new Polaroid and women drinking pop on inadequately sized beach mats.

Around 70 of Mac Conner’s original magazine artworks are on display at House of Illustration in north London, an intimate but fresh space oddly reminiscent of the Venice Biennale. His pictures are double-stacked, as though still awaiting approval on a magazine office features board.

A loving couple perch on a New York fire escape. They are seen from above, through the grates of the staircase, balanced between flowerpots and a smart motorcar on the road below. Intended, like many of Conner’s pictures, as an illustration for a magazine short story, the picture originally bore the caption: “Theirs was a fantastic courtship – but it taught them that space and distance mean nothing to people in love”. It’s the stuff modern greeting cards are made of, which might have been a problem in this exhibition, but thankfully is not.

Conner co-founded an illustration studio, in which he drew unsettling scenes from books alongside his bold, lively gouache advertisements. In one, a man points a gun at a baby in a Moses basket. Other designs encapsulate growing fears about youth culture in the early 1950s. White picket fence is set against violence and suspicion to produce a clash worthy of Alfred Hitchcock.

Several of the illustrations could indeed be film stills, including one of a male body done in dramatic one-point perspective.

While a section of the exhibition is dedicated to men in Conner’s art, it’s the women who make the most impact. In a plate for a story by Martha Gellhorn, war correspondent and third wife of Ernest Hemingway, a glamorous woman talks to a man, whose jaw alone is visible at the edge of the picture plane.

It’s not easy to create life out of flat gouache, but Conner excelled at it. Fine artists could turn their noses up at ad men as much as they liked, but he has proved himself just as visionary and fine a draughtsman as they.

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (8/5/15).

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