In my experience, it’s a thin line between love and hate when Valentine’s Day rolls around. Some people can't get enough of roses, chocolates, and romance, while others can’t stop grumbling about how it’s just a stupid holiday invented by the greeting card companies. As someone who prefers to refer to February 14 as “Shmalentine’s Day,” you can guess which camp I fall into.
I am thinking that Charles Green Shaw, the abstract artist and writer, might be with me on this one. In any case, he certainly wasn’t sentimental about traditional Valentine’s Day imagery. In a series of collages he created exhorting Americans to “buy war bonds,” he used all the typical fourth–grade elements of Valentine-making (doilies and shiny red heart stickers) and manages to turn them into something militaristic. In one collage, the central image is a big red heart, pierced not by Cupid’s arrow, but by an atomic missile. In another, many little hearts are attached to tiny doilies making them look like soldiers parachuting out of danger.
On the other hand, we have Eero Saarinen, the Finnish-American architect known for his clean modern designs of the St. Louis Gateway Arch, and the main Dulles International Airport terminal. Though his designs in steel and concrete might suggest otherwise, judging from this sweet “certificate” he made for his second wife Aline, he was a big softie. Maybe he got her a teddy bear and ten dozen roses every Valentine’s Day?
One last entry for the pro-Valentine’s camp would be Andrew Michael Dasburg, the modernist painter. Early in his courtship with the sculptor Grace Mott Johnson, he sent her this illustrated note asking that eternal question: “Won’t you be my Valentine?” He addresses her with the pet name “little calf,” and though there are probably not too many women who would be flattered to be compared to a cow, she seems to have found it endearing—after all, they were married two years later.
Whether it’s Valentine’s or Shmalentine’s to you, I wish you a happy one!
Bettina Smith is a contract cataloger at the Archives of American Art as well as a self-confessed curmudgeon.
To see more amorous and affectionate notes from artists in the Archives of American Art’s collections, check out our online exhibition A Thousand Kisses: Love Letters from the Archives of American Art.