McCauley (Mac) Conner, the subject of the Delaware Art Museum exhibition “The Original Mad Man: the Illustrations of Mac Conner,” makes no claim to be an artist. In a video interview that’s part of the exhibition, he describes himself variously as a designer, as a storyteller, and as a shy guy who wasn’t so good with words but who found ways to express himself visually.
The 70 paintings on display in the show weren’t made for the ages — just for that week’s or that month’s issue of such popular magazines as Collier’s, Redbook, This Week, and the Saturday Evening Post. They have survived only because Conner’s agent insisted that his clients return the artwork, and now they are in the collection of the Museum of the City of New York, which organized this show.
Conner, 103, worked during the final post-World War II flowering of the mass magazine and was present for its decline as well. He grew up in Cumberland County, N.J., and during the Depression studied art through a correspondence course. He later attended the predecessor of Philadelphia’s University of the Arts. While he was there, he made contact with an editor at the Saturday Evening Post who encouraged him, and in 1937 commissioned him to do a cover. Wartime service in the Navy took him to New York, where he has lived ever since.
His collected works provide a glimpse of the fears, the fashions, and the fantasies of Americans 60 and 70 years ago. Most of his illustrations appeared in women’s magazines, and they show a world of suburban housewives and glamorous urban career women. Women wear gloves, and hats with veils on them. Nearly everyone is white. Men — and even boys — are in suits. Everybody smokes.
Many of the illustrations ran with wonderfully evocative captions. “The .45 in my pocket was heavy against my thigh,” goes one. “I sat and waited for Johnny to bring my wife home.” “The Harvard game was unfortunate,” goes another. “Sandy snorted. She’s lovely but not cool.”
These works were never taken seriously, and we are under no obligation to do so now. But these gouaches are more than the mere detritus of a bygone commercial culture. They may not be art — indeed, they may be borderline trashy — but they are artful and well worth a look.
Despite the false advertising of the show’s title, Conner was not part of the advertising agency culture depicted on TV’s Mad Men. He did do some advertising work, which is on display here and which is by far the least interesting thing in the show. His specialty, though, was editorial illustration, especially for the short stories and serials that were a mainstay of the magazines. Most of what’s here is from the late ’40s and early ’50s, slightly earlier than the time when Mad Men was set.
Illustration has always been a strength of the Delaware Art Museum, and if you go see this show, you should also go up to the second floor, where there is a good selection of earlier illustration on display. Conner, like Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, and many others, sought to distill the themes and events of the story into a single arresting and engaging image.
Though earlier illustrators were inspired by history painting and by opera and theatrical melodrama, Conner connected with a generation raised on the movies. Indeed, his strongest works function almost as one-frame films. They seek to evoke not just a scene from the story, but also the psychological state of the characters.
Conner rarely shows us a scene straight on. We see the action from below, or above, or reflected in mirrors. In one case, a boy stands on his head, and we see his suburban world turned upside down. Other examples are more subtle, but the pattern remains the same. The focus is on one character — often shown very large and in isolation, within an environment that is somehow askew. Conner’s unexpected points of view suggest subjectivity. They promise to show not only what happened but also evoke how it felt.
“Fern Hartley, taking both hands from the rails, pitched headfirst downstairs,” says the caption for part one of “There’s Death for Remembrance” in This Week magazine for Nov. 13, 1953. “Horrified, the guests saw her die.” In Conner’s picture, Fern does not appear to be subject to gravity. She is thrusting herself outward into another world, and right into the face of the reader.
In the illustration for “How Do You Love Me,” in Woman’s Home Companion, August 1950, the face of an altogether more stylish protagonist fills most of the frame. She is looking ahead, through the netlike veil of her hat, suggesting that though she is walking away from the man in her life, she is still somehow trapped. He is behind her, walking away but still looking back at her. He is bland and colorless, and her red-orange lips and fingernails and huge green ring animate the picture and her personality.
In the illustration for “Let’s Take a Trip Up the Nile” for This Week, Nov. 5, 1950, we are looking down on a couple on a fire escape from the point of view, perhaps, of a pigeon passing by. Even though details like a clothesline pulley signal the ordinariness of the scene, Conner makes the zigzagging geometry of the fire escape structure very exciting. Its lines are as modern as the newest buildings of the time.
The young woman is very attractive, enthusiastic, and modern, and we assume the man is too, though we can’t see his face. Their perch above the street might seem a bit precarious, but you sense that this above-it-all couple is feeling not danger but freedom. In the short story, they fantasize about going to distant and exotic places. If you look at the picture, you see they have all they need right where they are.
But you still want to know their story. Drawing you in — that was Conner’s job.
The Original Mad Man: the Illustrations of Mac Conner
Through Sept. 17 at the Delaware Art Museum, 2301 Kentmere Parkway, Wilmington.
Hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Friday -Sunday. Closed Monday and Tuesday.
Tickets: $12 (adults), $10 seniors 60-plus, $6 students with ID and youth ages 7-18, free for children under 7. Free all day Sunday and from 4-8 p.m. Thursday.
Information: 866-232-3714 or www.delart.org.