Aircraft and pretty girls, the two appear to go hand in hand, many an example of warbird nose art is a depiction of a pretty girl, usually in a somewhat sexual pose and quite possibly missing a few items of clothing, no doubt much to the pleasure of all men who clapped eyes on it.
The most popular inspiration for these are known as the Varga Girls after pin-up artist Alberto Vargas (9 February 1896 – 30 December 1982) the Peruvian staff artist at Esquire Magazine. His gorgeous representations have sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars (in 1967 his painting “Trick or Treat” sold for $71,600 at auction) and were the inspiration for many of the sexy ladies which may have been seen on the nose of a B-17 on its way into battle. Well known nose art artist Don Allen was heavily influenced by Vargas.
(B-17 ‘Sally B’ www,devientart.com)
(Don Allen with some of his masterpieces http://www.djangostudios.com/images/portfolio/noseart_red_nose_2.html )
These ‘Varga’ girls were featured in calendars and gatefolds (the precursor to the centrefold) and as such were much-loved by WW II G.I’s, reminding them of home, of a more whimsical and carefree time. Like ‘Varga’ girls, the art on warbirds would often portray idealised beauties with unnatural proportions either elegantly dressed, semi-nude or nude. Traits included extremely slender body parts, especially fingers and toes which were often painted in a shade of red.
Vargas (full name Joaquin Alberto Vargas y Chavez) was born in Arequipa, Peru. The son of well-respected photographer Max T. Vargas, who had taught his son how to expertly use a paintbrush by the age of 13. He studied art in Zurich and Geneva prior to WW I and whilst there came across the French magazine La Vie Parisienne which he has said was a great influence on his artistic style. Following his studies he moved to America and his early work was drawing fashion illustrations in pen and ink for the Anderson Hat Company and Butterick Patterns, this was followed by time as a freelance commercial illustrator before becoming an artist for the Ziegfield Follies and the Hollywood studios. The most famous of his film work was The Sin Of Nora Moran (1933), the poster for which has frequently been named one of the greatest movie posters ever and shows leading lady Zita Johann almost naked in a flimsy see-through outfit in a pose of desperation whilst remaining sexually alluring. As you can see from the poster below Varga’s pin-up style was already flowing from his incredibly talented hands.
By the 1940’s Vargas had become known for his portrayal of the sexually uninhibited girls which have become iconic of the WW II era through their publication in Esquire Magazine. He later went on to have his work in Playboy and his career flourished with major exhibitions all over the world. Many of his works from this time are now housed at the Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas.
In honour of his majestic use of water-colour and airbrush the highest achievement one can receive in the airbrush industry is that of the annual Vargas award. He is widely regarded as one of the finest and most accomplished artists in his genre so it is no wonder that his work was used as inspiration for iconic pin-ups seen on the noses of many an aircraft. As with the ‘Varga’ girls, this art also was inspired by the grace, sophistication and beauty of the female form. A representation of the All American Girl they all longed to return to, however much they were idealised.
(Pin-up by Vargas)
(and its representation on B-24 ‘Georgia Peach’)
The influx of nose art throughout WW II introduced the ‘Bomber Girls’, heavily influenced by the pin-up style of Vargas and these have gone to be some of the most ironical examples of nose art, continuing to be much-loved and revered around the world. The pin-up girls in magazines became such a part of the GI lifestyle that Glen Miller even included a song in his repertoire called “Peggy the pin-up girl”. Mechanic and nose artist Hal Olsen recalls: ” By putting a girl on a plane, the crews felt they were protected on their way out to bomb and patrol. It inspired the crews and gave them a sense of belonging to an organized team. The main purpose, I guess, was to inspire the crews to have faith they’d be coming back.”
.(La Cherie by Hal Olsen http://www.usaaf-noseart.co.uk/ )
Though far from a household name Vargas was certainly well-known among the airmen of WW II as his pin-up girls were the object of lust for many during this lonely time overseas, with pictures put up all over bases everywhere. Many a Varga girl ended up being vividly and provocatively painted on to aircraft noses and ended up flying missions over Europe. I wonder what the Germans thought when they saw these half-naked ladies flying overhead firmly ensconced on a B-17 or other such bomber.
(Varga girls keeping watch over fighter pilots)
(WW II’s no.1 pin-up girl Betty Grable graces the nose of B-17 ‘Sentimental Journey’)
Even today, all these years after the works of art were commissioned photographers still love the comparison between the artistic representation of a beautiful girl and one in person.
These ladies became their guardians, the promise of a safe return, comfort in the face of mortality, salvation in the perilous times of war…it cant have hurt they were also rather gorgeous.