1883 Magazine

As Mad Men kicks off for its final hurrah, a trip to the Mac Conner retrospective at House of Illustration makes for a fitting viewing. Described as one of the ‘original mad men’, Conner left the Navy after WW2 and became a leading illustrator in the newly booming world of advertising and print media.

Taking his love of painting to the pages of women’s magazines, adverts for house hold appliances and romantic short stories, Conner created the vision of a new world, with increased spending, renewed family values and a post-war re-evaluation of the gender roles. There is a real sadness to some of the works; what is difficult to know however, is whether this sadness comes from hindsight, or from the artist himself.


Post WW2, women were required to very quickly give up their new found work and industrial freedom to become homemakers and child bearers for returning soldiers. This is reflected greatly in the changing fashions of the time - the practical, war time silhouettes replaced almost immediately with wasp waists and heels, further pushing the role of women into the beautiful and impractical. The women in Conner’s work, and the stories they illustrated were intended to give women a sense of escapism, but to a modern viewer they highlight the frustrations and limitations of the gender roles at the time. The men don’t fare much better, almost always portrayed as the ideal of masculinity, a prop for their female audience. They stare off into middle distance, acting either as distant husband or idealised lover, always muscular, defined and unmistakably ‘man’. During the wartime blending of typical gender roles - men weakened by intense violence and loss, women given a great responsibly - a new sense of depth could be felt by both sexes and this renewal of the typical roles was bound to be a source of frustration.

Surely both men and women will have found a sense of emptiness in hiding their past experiences to live up to these two ideals. Whilst Conner himself appeared to be having a blast - a video interview on show, of the artist in later life offers a wonderful insight into the life of a man who was thoroughly enjoying himself and the work he created - you do wonder if he didn’t feel some of this frustration too. The looks in his work are deeper than the cliched roles that his characters are taking on, and it is the subtlety and great humanity in his work that has made these pieces still resonate today. While people at the time may not have been able to put their finger on exactly what it was that made these works effective, it is surely that they sum up both the surface of the time, and the far deeper implications of this perfect image.


In the post-war attempt to return to normality, we also see the roots of mid 20th Century capitalism and the pressures of this new world. It was a swift return to regular life after such uncertainty, with a boom in print media and a huge rise in advertising - household products mainly, placing women firmly back in their place. The role of the ad man was perfectly tied up with this, as we have seen in the last few years of Mad Men, creating a new masculinity in this fast paced world.It is interesting to watch Conner speak about his career, saying he was drawn to it for the lifestyle, and that even though the illustrators themselves weren’t reaping great financial rewards from their work, they had access to a new kind of living.

He described his life as “a successful life as lives go”, working his way from shy teenager, to sociable ad man. He felt in his early years that his painting became a way of freeing him of his shyness, becoming his tool for communication. You can see from the work that he truly loved it. The light is brilliant, oppressive in some places, highlighting a battle between light and dark, public surface and shadow. The work captures these contradictions - playing with a fashion photography kind of perfection, yet artful enough to give his characters real thought in the midst of all the glamour.


Mac Conner: A New York Life will be running until 28th June at House of Illustration, 2 Granary Square, King’s Cross, London N1C 4BH


Words by Emily Steer

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