Mahlon Blaine

1894-1969

Mahlon Blaine’s best work walked the razor's edge between the grotesque and beautiful. Though few facts of his life are verifiable, insomuch as anyone can gather, he lived in that no man’s land as well. A childhood accident left the artist – who was born in 1894 - blind in his left eye, an accident that contributes to the flattened perspective that marks his work. Though he alleged to have seen combat in World War I, the Army rarely drafted the half blind. A well-documented chronic injury to his left arm was unlikely to have come from a war wound. The plate in his head of which he boasted was probably fictional. Few photographs of the artist survive, but his self-portraits further the likely fake war hero persona. View artwork by Mahlon Blaine on Grapefruit Moon Gallery.

In 1928, Blaine depicted himself as a typical, pipe-smoking veteran from the Lost Generation, an archetype that could be mistaken for a Hemingway dust jacket.

After the war years, Blaine led a transient existence, toiling in Hollywood in the era of avant-garde silent films, and bouncing back and forth from the West Coast to New York City as his marriage to b-movie actress Duskal Blaine smoldered, exploded, and then reignited.

According to his own count, Blaine and his wife married and divorced no fewer than three times. But of course, Blaine’s count is not to be trusted. Though he was beloved by his friends for his poetic approach to life—-his storytelling style was once compared to haiku, containing just a glimmer of meaning for the listener to deduce—-his life is best pieced back together by tracking his career. For decades Blaine labored in the factory-like setting of the underground New York erotic literature scene. Working closely with Jack Brussel, the energetic antiquarian book dealer who published and sold erotica first at his Ortelius Book Shop and then at other Fourth Avenue locations, Blaine illustrated symbolist classics like Paul Verlaine’s Hashish and Incense, the Marquis de Sade’s Justine, fast-money low-market fetish pornographic booklets, and everything in between.

Above: Plate from Venus Sardonica

Befriending a young John Steinbeck in the early 1920s, Blaine illustrated the book jacket of Steinbeck's first novel Cup of Gold.

Above: Cup of Gold by John Steinbeck

The apocryphal story of the meeting between Steinbeck and Blaine finds the two men on the Panama Canal. Steinbeck, a recent college graduate was moving from Canada to Greenwich Village to try his luck as a writer. "Standing at the railing, John remarked spontaneously to the passenger next to him: "Isn't 'Iowa by the Sea' beautiful?" To which Blaine replied-- "My God, you speak English!"- amazed to find an English speaker (with a clever sense of humor) amidst the mostly immigrant crew. On arriving in New York, they lived on different floors at the Parkwood Hotel and explored the city together. Blaine was impressed with some of John's stories and introduced him to an editor he worked with at Robert McBride & Co., the eventual publishers of Cup of Gold. Blaine would subsequently design the dust jackets and endpapers for both Cup of Gold and To a God Unknown."

Though Steinbeck's star would keep rising throughout his career, Blaine increasingly struggled for respectable work in the 1930s. Unlike many of the illustrators who were sweating it out uptown for the pulps and refusing to sign their names to their completed creations, Blaine took pride in his Aubrey Beardsley-derived yet wildly original, groundbreaking and explicit artworks. He would work steadily in this genre until the end of his career in the 1960s, accepting commissions for freelance work from clients as diverse as Arizona Highways Magazine and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land the Time Forgot. Blacklisted from the ranks of working illustrators for his work as a pornographer, Blaine began using the pseudonym G. Christopher Hudson for some of his more mainstream endeavors.

Above: Illustration for Hashish and Incense by Paul Verlaine

Blaine’s devotion to the macabre, the bizarre, and the sexual aspects of his art put the brakes on his commercial career. Though, patrons bought his original works during his lifetime, his cult status today emerged only through his rediscovery by sci-fi collectors and underground cartoonists. Still, Blaine’s admirers during his lifetime were fierce. Along with magician Jack Dunninger, who literally kept Blaine fed during lean times (often complaining about the artist's prodigious appetite), Blaine gathered fans in the elite of New York City's design world.

Above: Cover of Dunninger's Magic Tricks
Above: Original gouache painting created for patron Dunninger

In the late 1930s, Blaine began work on one of his most ambitious projects. With the noted interior designer Paul Ritter MacAlister, Blaine created a series of ten mural concept paintings for MacAlister’s proposed New York City showroom. The final murals, with images featuring haunting and surreal takes on the hyper-sexualized and industrial machine-age culture of modernist Manhattan, were never executed. The concept paintings feature giantesses in coitus with skyscrapers, and nudes on "gadgets" invented with obsessional detail. These are some of the most realized color artworks that have emerged by the artist to date. It’s hard to imagine that even Blaine could foresee these images becoming part of the midtown Manhattan urban cityscape. Certainly MacAlister - who would later go on to become a TV personality in Chicago with the first precursor to today’s HGTV programming – never did. However, the project gained at least some traction, and MacAlister created a 1:12 miniature room with his rough tempura sketches of the Blaine's proposed murals seen throughout.

Above: MacAlister miniature room with proposed murals
Above: Proposed Mural for Paul Ritter MacAlister
Above: Proposed Mural for Paul Ritter MacAlister

How much of Blaine’s obscurity in his lifetime came from his emergence during the depression years, when high end glossy work was scarce, and how much was due to a form of self-sabotage may never be entirely clear. Haunted by his own demons, Blaine spent the early 1940s under the psychiatric care of Greystone Hospital’s Dr. Archie Crandall. This period (coming directly after the completion of his work for MacAlister) marks the only known break in Blaine’s working life. After ironically completing illustrations for a reissue of E. Thelmar’s 1909 autobiography of madness The Maniac, Blaine slipped out of public view, before returning to the New York art scene in the 1950s.

Above: Hand drawn inscription to psychiatrist, interior cover, the Maniac

His last significant contract would come in 1962, when the early fantasy & science fiction publishing house Canaveral Press hired Blaine to illustrate their reprints of the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs. At the time, Blaine was living over the small bookshop out of which the publishing house was run, and considered an elder statesman in the world of specialty publishing. Though by the 60s, Blaine was in fact elderly, his work remained before its time. Though Blaine's illustration's for the Burroughs's line are far from his most technically proficient, the series represented a turning away from the heroic, literal-minded approach to book illustration. The images were widely disparaged at the time but they introduced a generation of artists and cartoonists to Blaine’s genius. His influence on the underground cartoonists of the 1970s is powerful, with visionaries like Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman referencing his work.

No one, least of all Blaine, ever sorted out fact from fiction regarding his life story, but that doesn't matter. Blaine emobodied the myth of the artist throughout his dynamic career. Mahlon Blaine died in poverty and obscurity in 1969.

Above: Moon Men by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Some of Blaine's published work includes illustrations in The New Yorker:

Cup of Gold by John Steinbeck ~ McBride: 1929

Hashish and Incense by Paul Verlaine ~ The Paul Verlaine Society: 1929.

The Temptation of Saint Antony by Gustave Flaubert ~ 1930 ~ New York: Williams Belasco & Myers, 1930

Candide or Optimism by Voltaire ~ Concord Books, New York, 1930.

Kama Sutra - Medical Press of New York 1936

Adventures of Sinbad the Sailor by Laurence Housman ~ Illustrated Editions Co.: 1936 ~ Eight double pages of art, frontispiece, chapter headings.(also World ed.)

The Restless Jungle by Akeley - National Travel Club 1936 d/w

The Maniac. A Realist Study of Madness from the Maniac's Point of View ~ under the pseudonym G. Christopher Hudson ~ Books For The Few 1941

Eastern Love Stories ~ Shakespeare House: 1951 ~ One plate

Dunninger's Magic Tricks ~ Commissioned by patron Joseph Dunninger ~ 1951

American Aphrodite Magazine ~ 1953 & 1954 ~ Nos. 9, 10, 13, 15, 16

Edgar Rice Burroughs Canaveral Press ~ 1962 ~ Seven titles, each with a dust jacket and seven interior illustrations by Mahlon Blaine ~ His last commissioned work.

There has as of yet been no exhaustive bibliography of Blaine's privately published erotica works but some representative titles are as follows:

Tearful Passage ~ Pals of Pain ~ Mr. Bottomley Goes to Town ~ Whipping Pirouettes ~ The Circus Lasher ~ The Pain Clinic
~Education of a French Model ~The Memoirs of Josephine Mutzenbacher and more.

 

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