- What is Pop art?
- Pop art in the US
- Roy Lichtenstein
- Roy Lichtenstein: Diagram of an Artist
- Ed Ruscha
- Pop art in the UK
- Patrick Caulfield
- Peter Blake: Studio visit
- The world goes Pop
- Sigmar Polke
- Nicola L’s Red Coat
- Parviz Tanavoli
- Niki de Saint Phalle
- Key Points
Far from being purely the reserve of the American and British art scene, the Pop movement spanned the globe at a time when countries were reeling not only from the mass production of cultural and consumer objects, but also from the fallout from WWII, conflicts like the Vietnam War, and the rise of Communism. In this social and political climate, artists were uniquely placed to satirise and critique politicians, film stars, and even other artists, using humour, sex and innovation to provoke, parody and reflect.
What do you see when you think of Pop art? You may be familiar with Andy Warhol's Coca-Cola bottles and Campbell’s soup cans, the multi-coloured screen prints of Marilyn Monroe, Roy Lichtenstein's comic book paintings, or other bright images combining the fashions, attitudes, and consumer cultures of the 1950s and '60s. But far from being purely the reserve of the American and British art scene, the Pop movement spanned the globe at a time when countries were reeling not only from the mass production of cultural and consumer objects, but also from the fallout from WWII, conflicts like the Vietnam War, and the rise of Communism. In this social and political climate, artists were uniquely placed to satirise and critique politicians, film stars, and even other artists, using humour, sex and innovation to provoke, parody and reflect.
With the dominance of British and American Pop art, other Pop practitioners have long been seen as on the peripheries of the movement. Warhol may have made the news with headline grabbing quotes – and continues to be the poster boy for all things Pop to this day – but many artists working across Europe, Latin America, the Middle East and Asia were hugely prolific in their own countries, and proved the movement was not just American or British, or male for that matter. Men and women artists around the world engaged with Pop in all manner of styles and visual philosophies, with Pop as we know it being prefigured by diverse groups and movements such as Nouveau Réalisme in France, Concretism in Brazil, Capitalist Realism in Germany, the Japanese avant-garde and the work of Yayoi Kusama, and Arte Povera in Italy.
In the global Pop movement, many artists created work that examined and questioned depictions of an element that had long had its place in art and popular culture: the female body. Instead of being seen a purely ‘decorative’ element of a composition, representations of the body were reclaimed by the Pop artists and other creative workers and thinkers: it emerged throughout the '60s and '70s as a legitimate tool of protest and empowerment. No longer merely fetishised and glossy, there were uncomfortable questions being asked of its role in visual culture and mass media.
Belgian artist Evelyne Axell (who for a time showed under the gender-ambiguous name Axell) was among the artists who took the female form as a template for power, liberation and equality. Introduced to painting by family friend René Magritte, Axell created mixed-media works such as Valentine(1966), which was a homage to Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman (and first civilian) to go into space. By attaching elements like helmets and zippers to the canvas, Axell invites her viewer to consider their relationship to the flesh beneath. To highlight the absurdity of Tereshkova's appearance remaining a focus of discussion despite her achievements, Axell staged a complementary performance work in which a model performed a reverse strip-tease: starting naked apart from an astronaut’s helmet, the model added layers of clothing as the performance went on to the delight of the assembled crowd. Acutely aware of working within in a male-dominated industry, her work frequently challenged perceptions of images of the female body and sexuality.
Catalan artist Mari Chordà also explored anatomy in her works, like Coitus Pop (1968), while Brazilian Anna Maria Maiolino's work Glu Glu Glu (1966) uses quilted fabric to create a sculptural image of the inside of a body, with brightly coloured intestines trailing down from a red-lipped head and upper body. Meanwhile, French artists Niki de Saint Phalle and Nicola L made Pop art with its own bodily preoccupations. Nicola L's Red Coat brought strangers together under the cover of a giant multi-limbed plastic coat, inviting its participants to consider what it would be like if there was a "same skin for everybody." And Saint Phalle created massive, joyously feminine sculptural bodies (known as the Nanas) while using her own body in the performance of her _Shooting Pictures_ (1971), in which she used a rifle to shoot at canvases loaded with pockets of wet paint. Through the Shooting Pictures, Saint Phalle explored the agency of her own body in her work and made it visible through colourful, yet violent, gestures.
War and peace
Far from being only concerned with developing consumer habits and radical new fashions, Pop art was also a vehicle for artists to comment on political events and recent histories. Nothing was off limits: Joan Rabascall’s Atomic Kiss(1971), a print of a mushroom cloud emerging over a pair of red lips, was both protest against America's controversial involvement in Vietnam and a warning against looming global atomic conflict. Sex and death are uncomfortable bedfellows, but Pop art was all about embracing these contradictions. Rabascall saw it as a way to create art that was relevant and meaningful: "What was important, I believe," he says, "was to get away from abstract art, which was very present in galleries, and do something that was corresponding to the time in which we were living."
America’s influence on fashion, art, music, and technology around the world couldn’t be denied, and many events occurring there – such as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 – made waves in the global psyche and art scene. Artists around the world created images in Kennedy's likeness or adopted widely-recognisable motifs like the American flag. Finnish artist Reimo Reinikainen, for example, used the "stars and stripes" as a template not for an expression of patriotism but for a comment on the war in Vietnam. With the advent of cheaper air travel and imported television and films, the world felt a growing connectivity with live news and emerging conflicts, and the Pop artists used their work to speak to those events. German artist Sigmar Polke explored a more subtle conflict – that of the Cold War – and the tensions between Communist East and capitalist West Germany, using comic book printing techniques to create images that question the production of desire and the "buyability" of satisfaction.
As a young artist, Keiichi Tanaami became obsessed with movies, television and adverts while growing up in Tokyo. Citing Warhol as a huge influence after his visit to New York in the 1960s, Tanaami's work and style draw many comparisons with Warhol’s bright colours and popular imagery, as in Commercial War(1971) above. But with Japan still reeling from the deployment of the atomic bomb in 1945, Tanaami turned his sights on the culture that was rebuilt in the aftermath of tragedy, and still draws on this subject as he continues to make art: "Today," he says, "I still create works that deal with my experience of war as a child. This moment of fear that a whole city can disappear just within a moment is a memory that has been recorded deep in my mind; it does not go away."
Consumer cultures and images of mass production
As Pop art turned its sights to the new concept of mass production – of homewares, cars, gadgets, fashions, and even weapons – many of its works began to deal with the ideas of multiples, doubles, mirror images, and diptychs. Source materials from advertising, music and film found their way on to gallery walls as artists experimented with techniques and image manipulation like screen-printing and collage, elevating the status of domestic and industrial image-making process to that of fine art.
Pop art was something a general consumer population could relate to - it was not elitist in that it used symbols, materials, products and images that people identified with, many of which could be find in the average home in their kitchen cupboard or a photograph from a newspaper article. Some Pop artists made use of this visual vocabulary to tell stories of special cultural and social significance, like Iranian sculptor and painter Parviz Tanavoli. Through sculptures, shapes, and symbols evocative of consumer labelling, Tanavoli created playful works – like The Poet and the Beloved of the King (1964-6) – that both told historical and literary stories and spoke to contemporary audiences. Much in the same way, the visual styles of magazines, comic strips, and other printed media were used by Pop artists to speak to and reflect upon the commercialisation of the cultures they lived and work in the world over.