One hundred and seventy eight

Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks
(coloured lithograph from Life magazine, Feb 19 1926)

1926 by John Held, Jr.
Illustration House, New York; at the MET until 15th August

The MET Museum’s exhibition American Woman; Fashioning a National Identity takes us through the years of women establishing their persona and style definitively over the twentieth-century, a style that changed roughly with each decade. So dictative was fashion then, there was little room for diversion, style became the key to becoming a member of society, and magazines were the visual mode of a rulebook. Held was a major illustrator throughout the twenties, working for Life as well as the New Yorker among others. His illustrations are particularly interesting as they not only present the era in all its glory, beautiful slim people dressed to the nines, but illustrate them with a twinge of satire, a subtle awareness of society’s extremes and the ability to poke fun. This is refreshing among the almost propaganda-like pictures of “how to look”, and the glitz and glamour posters that make such style appear effortless and something to aspire to. Held’s characters are full of movement, far from frozen, a cigarette surreptitiously held in a pose of cool, they are dancing, trying to catch up, if anything, with the rest of the motley crowd. The lady’s beads are flung into the air, oppose to hanging as they should down her flat-chested figure, her limbs flail, knees together awkwardly as she twists, looking down with concentration. Her partner ironically, being taught ‘new tricks’, seems more in the swing of things, thumbs up, elbows raised, he jaunts along. However, he is no less comical, his spectacles poised on the end of his nose, his leg flung towards his teacher, his cheeks rosy, this is the old gentleman ‘getting down’ with the trends of youth. Luminous on its orange background, the image is witty and amusing, serious but begging to be taken un-seriously.

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