Mahlon Carradin Blaine, who his friend the writer Gershon Legman called ‘the only American artist to produce an important erotic album’, was a talented and prolific illustrator, working mainly in pen and ink, expanding his repertoire during one of the most difficult times – the late 1920s and 30s – for commercial artists.
Blaine (he was probably born ‘Blain’, though as so much of his autobiography was regularly self-invented we cannot be sure) grew up in Albany, Oregon, and after leaving school moved to San Francisco to become a newspaper cartoonist. By the time he registered for military conscription in 1917 he had lost the sight in his left eye, probably as the result of a wood-chopping accident, though he much preferred to say it had occurred during a shipboard mutiny.
During the early 1920s he shared a Portland art studio with the poet-artist Dean Collins, with whom he staged his first exhibition, shortly afterwards moving to Los Angeles, and then from 1926 to 1931 living in New York, a highly productive period. Among the books he illustrated were two by Hanns Heinz Ewers, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1927) and Alraune (1929), and an edition of William Beckford’s Vathek (1928). 1929 saw the publication of Venus Sardonica, by far Blaine’s most important and successful erotic portfolio.
In 1932 he moved back to California and married Fern Bowman, who already had a daughter, Bernice, but Blaine was not suited to marital commitment and the union ended in divorce in 1940. By this time Blaine’s illustration glory years were mostly behind him, and the rest of his life was mostly spent travelling between California and New York, picking up work where he could, including mildly erotic illustrations for American Aphrodite, The Circus Lasher, Whipping Pirouettes and Whip Some More, My Lady. Mahlon Blaine died in relative poverty and neglect in a lodging house in New York.
An excellent overview of Mahlon Blaine, his life and work, can be found in Roland Trenary’s Mahlon Blaine: One-Eyed Visionary (Grounded Outlet, 2015), while The Outlandish Art of Mahlon Blaine, edited by Brian Hunt (GB Graphics, 2009) contains more than 450 pages of representative Blaine illustrations covering his whole lifetime’s output.
A Mahlon Blaine website at www.mahlonblaine.com has links to a variety of Blaine material.