Sunday, 2 April 2017

Eduardo Paolozzi:The godfather of Pop Art?

The Whitechapel is more relaxed than a lot of other galleries. They let you take photos for a start - and they don't give you too much to read. Which allows you to focus your eyes on the art itself, the things you've actually come to see. In the case of their current Eduardo Paolozzi retrospective much of that was a joy to behold.

They're styling him as "the godfather of Pop Art" and whilst the exhibition may not be completely decisive he's as much of a claim on that title as anyone else. Certainly his voracious appetite for appropriating pop culture influences and blurring the boundaries between the brows high and low is here for all to see.

Paolozzi was born in Leith, Edinburgh in 1924. The son of Italian immigrants who ran an ice cream shop he was, like most Italian men in Britain at the time, interned during the war. He was one of the lucky ones. His father, grandfather, and uncle were among over 400 Italians drowned when the ship deporting them to Canada, the Arandora Star, was sunk by a German U-boat in 1940.

Paolozzi was sixteen at the time and there can be no telling how that affected him. Three years later, with the war still raging, he began his studies at the Edinburgh School of Art. A move to London saw a brief spell at Saint Martin's and a longer one at the Slade (it seems like everyone went there) before his travels took him to Paris where he met, and came under the influence of, Constantin Brancusi and Alberto Giacometti.

You can see it in his early sculptural work and it'd probably be fair to say that vestiges of these influences, and those of Braque, Leger, and Picasso, could still be found across his ouevre until the very end.

Fun Fair (1947)

Collage (1951)
In 1947 Paolozzi held his first solo exhibition at London's Mayor Gallery. A collection of drawings, collages, and concrete sculptures many of which have been gathered together at the Whitechapel show for the first time since the 70s. His choice of concrete as a medium, at the time considered to be for 'working men', helped distinguish Paolozzi from his more conservative sculptural predecessors. The boldness in choosing material was matched by a general boldness of aesthetics and attitude and helped earn Paolozzi a reputation of an artist of international repute.
He embraced life in Paris and waxed lyrical about how it was "perfect, colourful, after the grey life of London". It seems unlikely he'd have voted for Brexit. Paris's title as home of the avant-garde art world was soon to be wrested away from it by New York but in the post-war late 40s it still clung on to its reputation and Paolozzi was able to soak up the influence of Surrealism before returning to London in the early 50s. 

Icarus (1957)
With a studio established in Chelsea he set to work on his Bunk! project for the ICA. A plethora of collages and scrapbook pages containing adverts for cars and Cola, robots, glamour models, and sci-fi scenarios all bedecked in bright and breezy colours. There were nods to Kurt Schwitters and Mimmo Rotella but the work, undoubtedly, was wholly Paolozzi's own. Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein were soon to produce the iconic images we now associate with Pop Art but Paolozzi's scruffier, more organic, take on the genre predated them and helped pave the way for them.


You Can't Beat the Real Thing (1951)

Headlines from Horrorville (1951)

Horse's Head (1947)
Paolozzi, though, was restless, and highly industrious, and around the same time he was creating his proto Pop Art collages he was also making eerie sculptures, cubist drawings, and, with Nigel Henderson, founding Hammer Prints Ltd - a design company that made home furnishings from wallpaper to ceramics. You can see 1952's College Mural taking up nearly an entire wall of the Whitechapel Gallery whilst marvelling at Paolozzi's Trial Proofs. He even created cocktail dresses, rather lovely ones at that.


Fish (1946)

Trial Proofs (1950-1952)

Maquette for the Monument of the Unknown Political Prisoner (1952)

St Sebastian I (1957)
Large Frog (1958)
Cockatil Dress by Horrockses Fashion (1953)

Mr Cruikshank (1950)
Collage Mural (1952)
His post-War bronzes, such as 57's St Sebastian I (above), bought him further acclaim and even more fame. They were exhibited in the Venice Biennale before going on a World tour. They seemed to speak of both an admiration of, and an anxiety about, the increasingly technical times he was living in. Cogs and gears erupt, seemingly randomly, from the sculptural surface as if they're multiplying as they do. To take in everything that's happening would take a very long time indeed and I think Paolozzi wanted us to be awed by the complexity of the creation whilst admiring the notional simplicity of the form.

At the time many critics saw these sculptures as haunted by Hiroshima. One wrote, in The Times, that they looked as though "something frightful has happened to them. They may have been blasted by the Bomb, or buried for decades and resurrected by accident". This spoke too of Paolozzi's interest in sci-fi. It reminds me a little of Quatermass and the Pit and soon Paolozzi's work was trying on ever more robotic, science fiction based styles. Bride of the Konsul (1962) almost looks like a depressed robot coming to terms with being decommissioned.

Bride of the Konsul (1962)

Whitworth Tapestry (1967)
Yet while some works were monochrome or grey others were a riot of colour. The Whitworth Tapestry is almost an assault on the eyes at first but spend time with it and in its initially jarring colour scheme comes to make sense. You find beautiful patterns. You marvel at the invention and, after a while, it's as if some of the motifs begin to rhyme.
Works like Wittgenstein at the Cinema Admiring Betty Grable seem to predate the early days of computerised graphics. Paolozzi had one eye on the future and another on the past and it's with his attempts to resolve any dichotomy that that may have caused where his work is at its strongest.

Parrot (1964)

Wittgenstein at the Cinema Admiring Betty Grable (1965)

Metallization of a Dream (1963)
If that sounds a bit over earnest for an artist with such a light touch then that's attestation to his duality as an artist and a thinker. He could name a work after the analytical philosopher who wrote Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus but he could also make a bubblegum Butlins sculpture like Diana as an Engine I and turn it into a thing of utter wonder. No surprise that 1970's Crash Head sees a chain attached to a golden head. It's as if Paolozzi is trying to slow his mind down, restrain it, so he can take control of, and process, the rush of ideas.


Diana as an Engine I (1963-1966)

Crash Head (1970)
By 1971 Paolozzi was railing against the very avant-garde art world that had nurtured him. A solo exhibition at the Tate Gallery on Millbank saw an acerbic riposte to what he viewed as a tired and weary establishment. It was like he was saying goodbye to the Pop phase of his career and hello to teaching posts and explorations of 'universal language games' (whatever they are), music, and linguistics.

He may've been branching out, spreading his wings, but he wasn't leaving without blowing a massive raspberry at those he was leaving behind. It's hard to see 71's Avant-Garde as anything other than a piss take. Quite an amusing one but a piss take nonetheless. 100% F*ART was even more cynical in that it seemed to equate the art world with a giant money making machine. Probably a more novel criticism then than now.
With Zero Everly Experimental Pile he showed he still had it and could create better collages than any new pretenders on the scene (its eye catching yellow just cajoles you to come in closer) but with Djerba and Jeepers Creepers he demonstrated where his art was to go next. Back to clothing design whilst engaging with other new movements in art.
If one work sums up this period it has to be Pop Art Redefined. A gurning pachyderm gleefully paints an American flag to undoubted and undiluted praise. It's a cruel, but sniggeringly funny, put down of not just Jasper Johns but all Pop Art, including Paolozzi himself.
Zero Everly Experimental Pile (1970)

Djerba (1971)

Avant-Garde (1971)

Jeepers Creepers (1972)

100% F*ART (1971)

Pop Art Redfined (Lots of Pictures, Lots of Fun) (1971)
Fantastic though the mature, later works of the grown up serious artist that Paolozzi had become are they never eclipsed his Pop Art era. Suwasa flirts with minimalism but seems more concerned with the analysis of structures themselves. His untitled wood reliefs even more so. In an echo of his early concrete sculptures there's much to see here, much to admire, but they can be frustrating in that they don't seem to be heading anywhere. They're maps of cities yet to exist. You can enjoy the journey but you'll never arrive because there's no destination. Process had taken primacy over product.

Suwasa (1966)

Untitled Wood Relief (1973)

Leicester Tapestry (1982)
Paolozzi had long been interested in objects from other cultures. He devoured and collected them with an ethnographic obsession. At the British Museum he was drawn to musical instruments, puppets, masks, and furniture. In the 80s he collated and curated these artefacts into an exhibition that sought to make new and surprising connections between them. He questioned authenticity and the concept that a work of art was ever finished or rigid. He saw art as something that could change with time and with the input or new ideas.
Oddly enough he'd been doing this, to some extent, all along. Paolozzi himself may have, at times, eschewed and dismissed his earlier work but that doesn't mean we should. It's best for us to view both the former and latter works as part of the same process. Forever assessing the old. Forever creating the new. Forever making. Forever thinking. Forever moving forward. If that's the measure of a pop artist, or indeed any artist, then Eduardo Paolozzi, whilst perhaps not being the godfather (what a daft sobriquet anyway), was certainly a key driver of the movement and a hugely important, if often under reported, link in the chain of 20th century British art history. It's to the Whitechapel's testament that they've shone a light on his vital and varied career.

Thanks to Mark (and his parents) for accompanying me on this cultural excursion.

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