Thursday, June 2, 2016

"Anna Held's Milk Bath" by John Held Jr.

Earlier this year I wrote about John Held Jr.'s wonderful book of woodcuts illustrating the "The Saga of Frankie and Johnny." Held was known most for his illustrations of flappers for Vanity Fair and The New Yorker which captured the Jazz Age.

But Held's work that moves me the most are the rough engravings from the turn of the last century - the end of the Victorian era. Here he is known for illustrating some of the darkest aspects of humanity - drunkenness, lecherous misogyny, violence - with a sort of tenderness. Held often referred to himself in his illustrations as "that old sentimentalist." It wasn't that he was promoting or glorifying such vices, but rather, that he saw the humanity within the people carrying it out.

This print is of Anna Held, a tremendously famous actor and singer in her day. Sadly, her life was cut short in 1918 when she died at the age of 46. Anna Held had been a Broadway star and regarded as a war hero for her work entertaining troops on the front lines during World War I. That she passed away while still in the midst of a thriving career must have struck the public in a powerful way. This woodcut of John Held Jr,'s was published in 1930 and was meant to capture the nostalgia people felt for a recently bygone era - a time when it was still considered risque for a woman to show her legs. Though Anna Held - a performer known for her flirtatious performances - is depicted in a bath, the banality of the scene is emphasized by practical elements such as a scrub brush and giant jugs. A relative innocence comes across in the expressions on Anna Held and and her attendant's faces, who seem cheerful yet humdrum in their occupations.

This is in contrast to most of Anna Held's promotional photographs that directly confront viewers with a come-hither gaze.

Rest in peace, both of you talented (and unrelated) Helds.


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