Why Britain was first to go Pop
Once regarded as a wholly American phenomenon, Pop art was first explored in Britain some 20 years earlier — albeit via a very different take on the post-war world. Illustrated with works offered on 2 March in London
British artists kick-started the whole Pop movement
As early as 1947, Scottish sculptor and artist Eduardo Paolozzi (1924-2005) was creating collages from imagery he’d found in American consumer magazines and comic strips. In Improved Beans he united, among other things, a bottle of Canada Dry and a tin of beans in tomato sauce.
These were crudely cut from their original context, innocence now replaced by irony. Working in ‘austerity Britain’, where post-war rationing would continue until 1954, Paolozzi cast an envious eye on what he perceived as the utopia of American plenty. As he said himself, American consumer magazines ‘represented a catalogue of exotic society, bountiful and generous’.
The Independent Group and popular culture in British art
Paolozzi became a founding member of the Independent Group, the radical London collective which met at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in the 1950s. The common purpose was a rejection of what they saw as an elitist hold on British art, in order to make it inclusive of popular culture.
The group held a pair of landmark exhibitions: Parallel of Life and Art in 1953 at the ICA, and This is Tomorrow in 1956 at the Whitechapel Gallery (a jukebox playing continuously during the latter). As Lawrence Alloway, one of the writer-theorists affiliated to the group put it, ‘movies, science fiction, advertising, pop music... We felt none of the dislike of commercial culture standard among most intellectuals, but accepted it as fact, discussed it in detail, and consumed it enthusiastically. One result… was to take pop culture out of the realm of escapism, entertainment and relaxation, and treat it with the seriousness of art.’
Another member of the Independent Group was Richard Hamilton, whose collage $he is part of the Tate gallery collection. A study for the work was sold at Christie’s in London in November 2017.
In both the preparatory and finished versions of $he, the three main elements were inspired by images in three separate US magazines: of an electric toaster; a pink refrigerator; and the female glamour model, Vikki Dougan. The combination was in no way arbitrary — Hamilton was referencing how advertisers draw fetishistic parallels between the female form and ‘the fleshy plastic and smooth, fleshier metal’ of numerous consumer goods.
Study for $he was made in 1958, three years before pioneering Pop works across the Atlantic such as Roy Lichtenstein’s Look Mickey and James Rosenquist’s President Elect. Andy Warhol entered the scene even later still.
Why is Pop thought of as an American movement?
‘Pop images from the US were very direct,’ says Nicholas Orchard, head of Modern British and Irish Art at Christie’s in London. ‘They’re very simple and uncompromising in how they make an impact, in a way that many British works, which are often quite subtle and considered, do not.
‘An even bigger factor,’ the specialist continues, ‘is the fact that Americans supported their own market. The country fell in love with Pop immediately, and its institutions and collectors got behind it from the start. That wasn’t the case in Britain.’
‘With Pauline Boty and the likes of Peter Blake, there’s a real sense of British art electrifyingly coming to life’ — specialist Nicholas Orchard
In American art history, Pop tends to be considered as a reaction against (some even say an assault on) the Abstract Expressionist movement, which dominated American art in the 1950s. Pop meant a return to figuration, using the most instantly recognisable objects possible: those of everyday life.
In Britain, there was no such axe to grind. Pop, as we’ve seen, was more a response to austerity and an act of rebellion against the outmoded cultural establishment (heralding a breakdown of the old order that mirrored, arguably, the simultaneous breakdown of empire). As Lucy Lippard said of the growth of two separate traditions in Pop Art, her definitive history of the movement, Pop had been ‘born twice, first in England and again, independently, in New York’.
The second wave of British Pop art
In the late 1950s, Richard Hamilton was made visiting tutor at London’s Royal College of Art, where students included David Hockney, Pauline Boty, and Peter Blake. These artists would go on to launch a second wave of British Pop in the Swinging Sixties. At the start of what turned out to be a long and hugely successful artistic journey, Hockney produced works such as Big Stone. Boty, by contrast, had a life and career that was tragically short (she died of cancer in 1966, aged 28).
‘Who knows what greatness she might have gone on to achieve?’ asks Orchard. ‘The silver lining is that she left us with a small number of truly classic Pop pieces. She brought a female sensibility and perspective that enriched the movement and was often addressing — through an apparently playful Pop idiom — many gender issues we’re still addressing today.’
A good example is BUM, Boty’s final painting, which was commissioned by Kenneth Tynan to decorate his erotic cabaret show, Oh! Calcutta! (whose title was a play on the French words, ‘O, quel cul tu as’/‘Oh, what an a*** you have’). It depicts a bare, sensuously painted woman’s bottom, tightly squeezed within a proscenium arch. How is the viewer meant to react? And dare we ever admit to our instinctive, first response? (Tynan’s sado-masochistic tastes are perhaps a sign that BUM is more than just a straightforward celebration of the female posterior.) Neglected in the decades after her death, Boty’s work has seen a resurgence of interest in recent years, including a touring retrospective in 2013-14.
Allen Jones had just turned 22 when he arrived on the M.A. course of the Royal College of Art in autumn 1959. He was one of a prodigiously talented and independent-thinking group of young students who were soon to be identified as a major driving force in the nascent Pop art movement. His comrades-in-arms included the American R.B. Kitaj, five years his senior, who exerted a powerful influence on him and on his colleagues Hockney, Derek Boshier and Peter Phillips.
However, Jones was expelled from the RCA in summer 1960 for alleged insubordination, much to his own surprise, and returned for a year to London’s Hornsey School of Art, where he had previously studied, for a teacher training course. Despite his traumatic removal from the ranks of the artists with whom he had such close affinities, he retained his friendship with them and continued producing paintings that shared key aspects of the ‘Royal College style’.
In The General and his Girl (1961), sold at Christie’s in 2018, the shapes inscribed on the general’s medals evoke the timeless designs of mazes and labyrinths; they are suggestive also of badges worn by teenagers to mark their affiliations, presented as pictures within pictures in works such as Self-Portrait with Badges (1961) by the pioneering Peter Blake, who had graduated from the RCA six years earlier and who quickly befriended the younger artists.
The colourful highpoint of the late 1960s
In the 1960s, the colours used by Boty and other British Pop artists became brighter, and the imagery sharper. ‘With Pauline Boty and the likes of Peter Blake, there’s a real sense of British art electrifyingly coming to life,’ says Orchard. Blake is perhaps best known for the cover he created for the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, a collage of 71 celebrity portraits, and for the ebullient male and female wrestlers he depicted.
A growing appreciation for an international phenomenon
More than 50 years on, is British Pop finally getting the recognition it deserves? ‘Certainly in the past decade, it has been reaching beyond a domestic market to buyers from across the world,’ says Orchard. Christie’s has played its part in this growing appreciation, with its 140-work exhibition When Britain Went Pop! in 2013. Two years later, The World Goes Pop, a major show at Tate Modern, contended that Pop had been a very international phenomenon.
‘There’s a growing awareness that Pop wasn’t an all-American movement,’ Orchard confirms. ‘It began in Britain and continued to thrive in Britain over many years. The result is that first-rate works are available, at some very favourable prices.’