Relevant Magic in the Art of John Held, Jr. by Kori Alexander

"The word glamour is suddenly terribly old hat, I learn from my teen-age sons. If anything, it means to them superficial? and, naturally, totally irrelevant?- the current curse of curses. They have forgotten that Webster's first synonym for glamour is magic, and magic is exactly what was felt by their grandparents in the Twenties and their parents in the Thirties. The optimism, the sudden freedom, the apparent progress, and the enlightenment about old-fashioned mores and morals-all were new. It was exciting, it was daring, it was beautiful all at once; in short, too good to be true- it was magic . . . Let's hope that relevance can accommodate a little magic, if not glamour- it needs it!!"

-Carl J. Weinhardt, "The Rise of the Mormon Kid",
The Most of John Held, Jr.

photo of John Held


Many single words and simplified phrases come to mind when one attempts to stereotype- or boil down- the Jazz Age, to get the jist of what it was all about (to speak the lingo of the times). We think of bobbed haircuts on flapper girls, thick rouge-red lipstick the consistency of paste. Or, if we think in concepts- the age is most often characterized as excessive and visually majestic-yet altogether superficial.

The artist John Held, Jr. is probably most responsible for what has become the stereotypical visual representation of the young men and women of this time period. From around 1915 until the later end of the 1920s, Held was responsible for adorning some of the most influential magazines of the time with his distinctive cartoon art. His caricatures of the flapper girl and her loping, goofy college suitors were not only indicative of the freewheeling nature of America's youth, they were an indictment of all of the foolishness that went along with it!
Yet, it was Held's ability to identify the irony within the lives of these youth that ultimately qualified his work as a mature and absolutely relevant cartoonist. In even his most dogmatic of cartoons, Held's humor prevails over his opinions, compelling the observer to laugh along with him. Herein lies Held's true magic. Not unlike F. Scott Fitzgerald (the literary clairvoyant of the times), his brilliance stems from a keen power of observance rather than a preordained or painstakingly learned formula for success.


This seems especially clear in Held's numerous caricatures of the flapper girl. At times she is undeniably vain, preening herself like a sleek cat. And then, in an instant, she is also mysteriously aloof from the world around her. In Okay, Meet Me At the Corner, she has convinced (or seduced) a pharmacist into slipping her some drugs without a prescription. The cartoon is a perfect dichotomy; the simplicity of the design is sharply contrasted by the complexity of the subject matter. The girl's dress hangs from the far end of the chair, resembling a black paper cutout design. Her pearls are blank white circles, which disappear into thin air near her waistline. The pharmacist's jacket, by far the most embellished aspect of the cartoon, is composed of easy zigzag lines.
OK Meet me at the corner
"OK Meet Me At The Corner"
The pharmacist is smiling casually, as though this is the behavior he has come to expect from young girls. One gets the feeling he thinks this sort of thing is all in good fun. It is the expression of the girl herself that seems to depress the tone of the situation. The cunning is over; she knows he will give her what she has asked him for. And yet her posture, the simple black pout lines of her lips, her downcast eyes, lead us to believe she is anything but happy. Even the angle of her right hand, receiving from him a note, does not suggest any superiority on her part in this situation. Her hand hangs downward from her wrist, accepting rather than demanding his response to her inquiry. This acceptance demonstrates that she is not, at this moment, the characteristic proud, formidable woman her costuming would suggest.


Held could be saying a number of things with this piece. He could be commenting on the character of the young 'flappers' as a whole, but this seems doubtful. There is too much to suggest otherwise. The girl is not hopeless. Indeed, to many, her kind represented the epitome of hope, the possibility of female independence in a society historically bound to paternalism and male superiority. Her promise lies in all she could be were it not for the constraints of society binding her to prototypical female roles. But the promise of this girl is offset by her request in the drugstore. Why is she there? If anything, female independence during the Jazz Age functioned as only a brief interlude between the repression of previous decades and the repression that would follow. Young girls like this one, once married, largely became the housewives of the next generation. They may have lived out in youth the dreams of a sexual and cultural revolution, but with the crash of the Stock Market in 1929, most of these grandiose hopes were drowned in the comfort of the same liquor and drugs which calmed many hearts in a suffering nation. Yet, even in this seeming social commentary, Held is in no way verbose. The humor is that of irony, an irony that (if one can see it) is deeply tragic.


Original Art (partial Sunday strip)
  Held's caricatures of the flapper girl would remain in such high demand in the 1920s that editors would begin to send him blank checks so that he could fill in his own asking price for a picture. His efforts at the comic strip were realized with the publication of "Oh Margy!" (later "Merely Margy"), which began to run in the newspaper. Meanwhile, cartoons in Vanity Fair and Life continued to chronicle the lifestyle of the jazz generation, the work with which he would be most often identified.


But slowly, Held's irritation with being a "type" artist was beginning to mount. Luckily, relief was in sight. In 1925, New Yorker magazine began to take shape under the eye of Harold Ross, a friend from Held's childhood. Both of the young men had been raised in Salt Lake City and had, coincidentally, served on the same high school newspaper staff. The New Yorker's (and Ross') interest in Held, however, did not call for more of the same old thing. Rather, Ross inquired about the work Held had done in woodcuts during Their years in high school. Held, in turn, showed Ross the new linoleum cuts he had been working on, and so began a productive and memorable series of works for the New Yorker in which Held was able to broaden the range of his work and gain notoriety for more than just the "type" art with which he had come to be identified.

Inspired by Rhapsody in Blue
Held's series of linoleum cuts drew from varied sources of inspiration. His father, John Held Sr., was an immigrant born in Geneva, Switzerland. John R. Park identified the boy's deft skills in penmanship upon an excursion to Europe. When he returned, Park brought the boy back with him, in hopes of raising him as an educator to benefit the new Mormon community of Salt Lake City, Utah. Held, Sr. did not become an educator, however. Instead, he made use of his creative gifts and pursued various careers, one of the more successful among them being that of a copperplate engraver. Indeed, when Held Jr. was questioned as to the origins of the "new woodblock style" he utilized in his New Yorker series, he laughed and politely informed the reporter that the new style was one in which his father had tutored him during his boyhood in Utah. Held had it right that the reintroduction of woodcut could not be attributed to him, as nineteenth-century Americans had rectified the art form years prior. Yet, the use of woodcuts as an effective art form in prestigious literary magazines such as the New Yorker was Held's contribution alone. And it was one that exposed, once again, the cleverness of the artist. While it was Held's caricatures of the young college chaps and flapper girls that earned him public notoriety, it was his linoleum cuts and pen and ink maps that fortified his legitimacy as a social commentator.

Gas Stations & Piggly-Wiggleys on the map
The map series demonstrated Held's interpretation of a number of notable places and things. "Americana", for example, is a denunciation of all of the stereotypical symbols of American culture. On the Atlantic Coast, numerous boats prepare to dock, each labeled as "Rum Runner" or some variation of the same theme. All up and down the Eastern Coast line are rows of labels for rest rooms, hot dogs, Rexall drug stores, and gas stations. The West Coast is dappled with orange drink venues while the Southwest and Northern United States are overrun with bootleggers. The South is dappled with the ever-important Piggly Wiggly and the not-to-be-forgotten variation of the bootlegger - the moonshiner. And, nestled discreetly within all of this is the slogan every American knows by heart, "If You Don't Like This Country Go Back Where You Came From".

The woodcuts, which often ran in short series, managed difficult, even taboo subject matter with a wry wit and a sharp eye for irony. Indeed, in series such as Wages of Sin, Held's sense of the ironic is right on cue. He notes double standards in terms of sex in "A Fallen Man", "When a Girl Drank Beer and Liked It", and "The Road to Ruin". All note the stigmatization of women who act out of societal norms and the consequences these actions incur upon their lives. Especially noteworthy is Held's representation of men within these cartoons. In all three, the men execute the same acts of "sin" as the women, and yet, sanctions are never realized, never even suggested as being compulsory for the men. In contrast to this biting indictment of societal injustice, Held's personal touches on the captions add just enough lighthearted humor to offset the initial, outright anger. For example, on "When a Girl Drank Beer and Liked It":



With this simple caption note, Held offers his viewer the equivalent of an elbow nudge between old friends. The "laugh on the other side of his face" is to remind us of the absurdity of the statement itself, one which was probably heard quite often during the time of Prohibition. The assessment that women did not enjoy beer, or any other alcoholic beverage, probably arose in response to women's movements to support the ban of alcoholic substances in America. And yet, the women's movement to put a stop to the sale of alcohol was probably fueled by their need for safety and security. Prohibition rose among the ranks of female suffragists because it seemed an intelligent way to safeguard both their families and the little power they had over their own lives. So the idea that women no longer liked beer, as Held suggested in this linoleum cut, should have been enough to mark half of a face with disgust and the other half with laughter.
What is Held's point? Perhaps that stupidity is so sad at times that it borders on humor. But, without the clever caption and the discreet infusion of Heldian humor, the linoleum cut would seem only a stereotypical social commentary. This cleverness is Held's genius, his "magic", as Weinhardt refers to it, one that moves his art past glamour and into a state of relevancy. And, while the glamour of the Jazz Age may have died hard, Held's cartoons will forever epitomize our perception of the style, innocence, and magical promise of those times. Just as Fitzgerald's social commentary would endure long past the death of the era about which he wrote, the complexity of Held's cartoons, his sardonic wit and eye for absurdity, will stand strong against attacks on their significance in the realm of art.


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