"I think art since Cézanne has become extremely romantic and unrealistic, feeding on art; it is utopian. It has had less and less to do with the world, it looks inward, neo-Zen and all that. This is not so much a criticism as an obvious observation. Outside is the world; it's there. Pop Art looks out into the world; it appears to accept its environment, which is not good or bad but different - another state of mind." (Interview with Gene Swenson, 1963, cited in J. Hendriksen, Roy Lichtenstein, Cologne, 2000, p. 73).
It is usually Andy Warhol who is first thought of as being the American Pop artist whose work most closely relates to the postmodernist culture of appropriation, irony and trans-avant-garde neo-expressionism which characterised so much of the "new spirit" in the painting of the early 1980s. But, while Warhol began appropriating his own back catalogue of works and sought out close associations and collaborations with many of the new young artists on the New York scene in the early '80s, it was, as a work like The White Tree clearly demonstrates, Roy Lichtenstein's long ongoing and ironic aesthetic of appropriating and reinventing art history that most closely anticipated, influenced and informed much of the new direction of Postmodernist painting.
Part of a rare and important series of paintings which Lichtenstein made on the theme of German Expressionism, The White Tree is a large panoramic landscape painting that in its vista-like presentation of a pastoral idyll, gently mocks both the style and the inherent Romanticism of this early 20th C. art movement. Painted in 1980, at a time when Expressionism was making a demonstrable resurgence in both contemporary European and American art, Lichtenstein's subordinating of the pictorial aesthetic of the great Expressionist masters of the past to his cartoon-technique was both timely and appropriate.
Lichtenstein had, of course, made a practice throughout his career of appropriating the images of the great painters of art history and visually translating them into the mass-produced, benday-dot, cartoon-like pictorial language that he had first adopted in the late 1950s. As early as 1963 he had rendered Picassos, Cézannes and Mondrians in the simplified language of the printed cartoon. Responding to a world where the great masterpieces of the past were now mass-printed regularly on calendars, posters and postcards, Lichtenstein highlighted the reproducible nature of the artwork through his reduction of these celebrated images to the codified and mass-producable pictorial language of the popular cartoon. This subsuming of a vital part of the work's uniqueness and originality to the generic bland stylessness of the stripe, the benday dot and the black outline both ironized the status of these works as "masterpieces" and emphasized their existence as marketable comodities and trademark 'styles'. At the same time, the generic nature of Lichtenstein's pictorial technique actually nullifies any stylistic pecularities, such as brushstroke, sensitivity of line, nuance of colour etc. in such a way that the supposed uniquess and originality of the source work is wholly undermined. Dragging down "high" art to the "low" level of mass media, Lichtenstein's irreverent and humorous approach tended to make these masterworks look somewhat ridiculous, comic and trashy, no more "trashy", Lichtestein was keen to point out though, than other artist's rendering of the old masters such as "Picasso's rendering of Delacroix or Velasquez" for example. (Interview with Lawrence Alloway, 1983, reproduced in L. Alloway, Roy Lichtenstein, New York, 1983, p. 107).
" There's something about brand names that I don't care for", Lichtenstein commented in relation to these works, and in the 1970s he took this deconstructive technique further, applying it to the various clearly identifiable stylistic "isms" of Modernism as a whole. Following a series of works devoted to Cubism, Futurism and Surrealism, in which he attempted to create paintings that were not based on any specific 'masterpiece', but which were a generic amalgamation of the given movement's style or 'brand', Lichtestein turned to German Expressionism. Lichtenstein's decision in 1980 to paint a series of works that paraphrased the great German Expresionist masterpieces was primarily a continuation of this trend, but, given the current vogue for so-called Neo-Expressionist" painting it was also a timely investigation of the Expressionist aesthetic.
The White Tree is one of the largest and most important examples from this series of works. Depicting a panoramic pastoral idyll of the kind re-enacted on the lakes of Moritzburg by the painters of Die Brücke, the vast painting is a vast pastiche of these defining paintings. Showing one naked man and three naked women basking in the (wholly artificially rendered) delights of nature, the scene is one of the idyllic communion between man and nature that was so celebrated by the Expressionist painters. The vivid, spontaneous and bold brushstrokes of the "trademark" Die Brücke style are flattened and nullified by Lichtenstein's banal painterly processes into a fragmented jigsaw-puzzle-like pattern of striped and angular cubist planes. Lichtenstein's own trademark, the benday dot has also been abandoned. Lichtenstein found the benday dot inappropriate to the Expressionist style and, as this work shows, preferred to employ solely the stripe whose harsh angularity conveys a sense of the sharp angular forms of the die Brücke artists' work and their preference for the raw grain of the woodcut and for wood carving.
Approximating a typical classical landscape setting such as "the Judgement of Paris" for example, The White Tree is, like Lichtenstein's benday dot "sunsets" or "landscapes", a parody of the romantic notion of the sublime. Like the other major paintings in this Expressionist series, Forest Scene and Landscape with Figures and Rainbow for example, The White Tree is a composite approximation of the Die Brücke genre rather than a copy of any specific Expressionist painting. The combination of the epic scale of the work, its pastoral subject matter and romantic sentiments with the flat, regimented, banal and artificial way in which the scene is rendered, lends the work a pervasive and perverse sense of comedy, awkwardness and affection that is wholly amusing. The ridiculousness of this strange combination of nature and artifice, made so plain in this work, could also be said to apply to the work of the Expressionists themselves.
The patent sense of absurdity that Lichtenstein conjures in this mock grandiose work is deceptive and although appearing ready-made, was in fact achieved through the artists' painstaking craftsmanship and close attention to detail. As in all his "quotation" paintings from art historical sources, Lichtenstein worked slowly and carefully to achieve the precise effect he was after. Starting from a basic colour sketch Lichtenstein would constantly work and rework the image, building it up from sketches and using collaged elements to add and remove key elements until the appearance of the image became the slight, superficial and almost ready-made-looking one he wanted. "I like (my paintings) to look as though I never corrected anything and it just came out that way," Lichtenstein told David Sylvester," But I go through all sorts of contortions to make it look that way. Because I want them to look kind of like a commercial product but at the same time I want them to be an interesting painting, and so between drawings and collages and all sorts of things that lead up to the painting there's a lot of changes that go on." (Interview with David Sylvester, April 1997, reproduced in Some Kind of Reality, ex. cat. Anthony D'Offay gallery, London, 1997, p. 35).
Roy Lichtenstein, Expressionist Head, 1980, painted bronze c Estate of Roy Lichtenstein
Ludwig Kirchner, Akte in der Sonne, 1910 Private collection