By the 1970s, seeking new challenges after the comic-book idiom that had made him an overnight success, Roy Lichtenstein turned to the realm of “High art” for inspiration, beginning with Futurism, then moving into Cubism, Surrealism and in the present work, Expressionism. Painted in 1979, Blue Head belongs to a small series of portraits inspired by a collection of German Expressionist
woodcuts that Lichtenstein encountered in 1978. Lichtenstein’s work from this era can be seen as a critical - or even parodic - reinterpretation of modernist art history. In Blue Head, Lichtenstein adopts the Expressionists’ flatness and economy of form in order to
push his own visual vocabulary into the next realm. Lichtenstein exaggerates the angular features of the figure using thick, diagonal outlining in black and white, which he applies directly to the canvas without any discernible brushstroke. The painting’s bold coloration
and large scale heightens the psychological intensity of the figure, which recalls the emotive power of the German Expressionists as well as the melodrama of Lichtenstein’s comic book paintings of the 1960s. In what critics have termed a “complexity of reference,” Lichtenstein’s work from this era evoke myriad sources, both art historical and self-referential. The flat, unmodulated planes of color used to depict the figure’s face were employed by the Expressionists, but derive from Cubism, while the yellow and red patterning
along the painting’s right edge reveal an interest in Native American textiles that had occupied the artist the preceding year. By
referencing the Expressionists, who themselves had adopted aspects of Cubism and primitivism, Lichtenstein knowingly weaves an unfolding array of different references within his own sophisticated pictorial language, thereby creating new relationships that result from this juxtaposition.
Lichtenstein had seen Alexei Jawlensky’s Expressionist portrait heads from the Galka E. Scheyer Collection when he visited Pasadena in 1968, but it was a 1978 trip to Los Angeles that inspired his foray into Expressionism. There, Lichtenstein was intrigued by a collection of German Expressionist prints that were owned by the collector Robert Rifkind. The collection included works by Emil Nolde, Otto Dix, Max Pechstein and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, who together formed the influential Die Brücke group, as well as works by members of Der Blaue Reiter, such as Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky. Inherent to their aesthetic philosophy was an emphasis on the flatness of the picture plane, simple, bold coloration and their preferred medium of woodcut. A truly avant garde movement, Expressionism defined itself against the prevailing bourgeois attitude of its era, which must have attracted Lichtenstein. Shortly after this visit, he began the small series of Expressionist Heads, to which Blue Head belongs, in which he incorporated many of the same stylistic elements as the Expressionist woodcuts he saw in Rifkind’s collection.
In Blue Head, Lichtenstein combines the Cubist concept of depicting three-dimensional form by means of flat planes of unmodulated color within his own idiomatic painterly vernacular, using sharply-angled black and white lines to delineate the contours of the figure’s face and diagonal blue cross-hatching to depict light and shadow. Rather than Benday dots, Lichtenstein felt that cross-hatching more adequately evoked the oft-used diagonal shading of Expressionist prints. The vibrant yellow zigzag patterning along the painting’s right edge acts to energize and vitalize the canvas, and also evokes the effect of sunlight streaming onto the figure’s face. Indeed, the left side of the figure’s face seems “lit up” by an unknown light source, which Lichtenstein conveys by the blue hatch marks. The painting’s large scale and closely-cropped presentation present a brooding figure that recalls the heightened emotional power of the Expressionists.
A small black and white print from 1916, by the Expressionist Die Brücke painter Karl Schmidt-Rottluff may have provided the impetus for the present work, which similarly depicts a tightly-cropped composition in which a brooding figure is strongly outlined in black and white, using diagonal crosshatching to indicate shadow. The work features the same almond-shaped eyes, angular nose and prominent lips. However, unlike the comic-book paintings of the 1960s, which have a direct pictorial reference, in the Expressionist series, Lichtenstein claims that he did not “quote” specific works, but rather adopted certain Expressionist techniques to express his own unique sensibility: "I began to work on a series of paintings inspired by German Expressionism. I didn’t quote specific pieces as I had done with earlier works derived from Monet and Picasso; but I did keep in mind such artists as Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Erich Heckel. In a certain sense, I have always tried to eliminate the meaning of the original. If I had actually kept in mind German Expressionism in my latest series of paintings, then my work would have seemed to be Expressionist. But for my own subjects I make use of a style rather than a specific painting.” (Roy Lichtenstein, in conversation with Philip Jodidio, Connaissance des arts, no. 349, March 1981, translated from the French by Michael D. Haggerty; reprinted in G. Mercurio, Roy Lichtenstein: Meditations on Art, exh. cat., La Trienale di Milano, 2010, p. 261).
In Blue Head, Lichtenstein uses the formal vocabulary of the Expressionists as a jumping off point from which to explore his own, signature style. For though they are based upon Expressionist imagery, Lichtenstein’s paintings remain resolutely his own, as if he’s distilled the most essential elements of Expressionism necessary to his purposes. Though he may incorporate the great masters of Art History in his work, Lichtenstein never simply copies their work, but rather works through them, to translate their Expressionist vernacular into his own, idiosyncratic style. As he told Bruce Glaser in 1964, “The things that I have apparently parodied I actually admire.” (Roy Lichtenstein, quoted in B. Glaser, “Oldenburg, Lichtenstein, Warhol: A Discussion,” Artforum, vol. 4, no. 6, February 1966, p. 23) While studying fine art at Ohio State University, Lichtenstein’s college professor Hoyt Sherman established the foundation for Lichtenstein’s understanding of the figure/ground relationship in what he termed “perceptual unity.” Using Picasso as a reference, Sherman taught Lichtenstein to create a unified plane in which figure and background were combined within a singular two-dimensional field. By their very nature, the Expressionist woodcuts helped Lichtenstein to achieve this sense of perceptual unity. They were able to convey a modicum of information within a small format that could be easily reproduced. The imagery conveyed needed to be bold, striking and strongly-outlined in order to withstand the demands of the printing process. It is not surprising that Lichtenstein would have been drawn to these Expressionist prints, as they share so much in common his most-famous source material: comic books. Like the woodcuts, comic books leant themselves naturally to mass production and the concept of “perceptual unity” that Lichtenstein sought to achieve; they were able to convey a significant amount of information within a single, two-dimensional square format, rendered in bold colors and strong outlines that made for easy reproducibility. Indeed, these woodcuts might be seen as the “comic books” of the early 20th Century.
Writing in the exhibition catalogue for Lichtenstein’s recent career-encompassing retrospective, its authors adequately sum up Lichtenstein’s genius: “He was the first artist to systematically dismantle - through appropriation, repetition, stylization, and parody - the history of modern art, and he himself is now an inviolable fixture in that very canon. By rendering reproductions of paintings plucked from a familiar litany of Modernist art history, Lichtenstein conflated disparate genre subjects and styles, though not without deference and respect.” (J. Rondeau and S. Wagstaff, Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective, exh. cat., The Art Institute of Chicago, May-September 2012, p. 20)