Pauline Boty (1938-66), one of the founders of British Pop Art, was a talented, ambitious and well educated artist. She was also a beautiful, vivacious woman who embraced a ‘pop’ identity on the ‘swinging London’ scene. She studied at the Royal College of Art, the seedbed of the movement, where she met, befriended and went on to exhibit with Sir Peter Blake, Derek Boshier, David Hockney, Peter Phillips and Patrick Caulfield. In 1961, she exhibited along with Blake and two others at the A.I.A. Gallery in a group show seen as the very first Pop Art exhibition (Blake, although older, was himself yet to have a solo show). The following year she featured with Blake, Boshier and Phillips in Ken Russell’s Pop Goes the Easel – the innovative film for Monitor, the BBC’s prestigious arts programme, a bench mark for British Pop.
She produced a vibrant body of Pop Art collages and paintings that were exhibited in key Pop shows and a solo exhibition. Iconographically she was responsive to both popular culture and the radical new left politics that was newly emerging. Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, The Beatles, The Everly Brothers and film stars rub shoulders with JFK, Fidel Castro and Lenin. Stylistically her work displays typically ‘Pop’ features: fairground lettering, intense colour and the use of found imagery. Collecting, collating and synthesising mass culture imagery from newspapers, ads and magazines was central to her practice. She was celebrated for her wonderful walls of images (featured in Pop Goes the Easel) and her early collages have an elegance and wit with a Surreal and slightly threatening undertone. She developed this sensitivity to mass produced imagery in her paintings.
In a male dominated genre, Boty brought a female sensibility and perspective that enriches Pop. Refusing the expectation for ‘detachment’ laid on the young male artist, she always stressed the affirmative quality of the shared experience that popular culture offered. Speaking in the first person she asserted that ‘Our fears, hopes, frustrations and dreams … we can pin them on a star who shows them to millions, and if we can do that we’re no longer alone’ (The Public Ear, broadcast 17 November 1963). Film stars she believed ‘are the 20th century gods and goddesses […] and Pop Art colours those myths’ (Men Only, March 1963, p. 98).
As a serious artist Boty also claimed her right to an autonomous sexuality and her paintings celebrate the subjective pleasures (including the erotic) that women did and do find in popular culture. 5-4-3-2-1, 1963 (private collection) gives form to the excitement of dancing to pop music and the sexual anticipation that it brought: ‘Oh for A FU…’ declares a banner on the right of the painting. She identified fiercely with Marilyn Monroe, that ultimate symbol of sexuality for men. In The Only Blonde in the World, 1963 (Tate, London) she reproduces a black and white PR photo licking it into imaginative life with strokes of pink in the legs, yellow in the hair and in Colour Her Gone, 1962 (Wolverhampton Art Gallery) she mourns Marilyn’s passing. She also turned her desiring gaze on objects of her own desire; in With Love to Jean Paul Belmondo, 1962 (private collection) the image of the New Wave film star, taken from a photo by Don McCullin, is set below jaunty red and green Pop Art hearts and crowned with a gloriously oversized and quivering red rose – Boty’s symbol for female sexuality and desire.
Running alongside this celebratory work is a political and gendered critique of the workings of mass culture. The latter came to a head in two late paintings It’s a Man’s World I and II, 1964-65 (private collection) which, taken as a diptych, David Mellor described as ‘one of the most important … paintings produced in London in the decade’ (D. Mellor, The Sixties Art Scene in London, London, 1993, p. 136).
BUM, a splendid and mature work, is Boty’s very last painting and was executed after a diagnosis for cancer that ended her life so prematurely, aged only 28 in 1966. In the face of death, it is a wonderfully vibrant piece painted in colours straight from the tube. Commissioned by Kenneth Tynan for his notorious, erotic cabaret Oh! Calcutta! it places her, to the very end, at the cutting edge of the 60s zeitgeist. The title is a play on the French ‘O, quel cul tu as’ (‘O, what an arse you have’) and in a letter to the impresario, William Donaldson, Tynan outlined a gamut of ideas for the show, one of which was 'a pop art ballet designed by Pauline Boty, based on paintings that focus on the principal erogenous zones'. BUM, intended as the first of a series, took its cue from the punning title. Within a precisely executed proscenium arch the female bottom is exquisitely and sensuously painted, the flesh has a bloom like a peach and the work could be read as a sensuous celebration of life. Yet the meaning is surely more ambiguous. We have a reified body part, set above the demotic title, BUM, rawly proclaimed in chunky san-serif lettering and revealed ‘on stage’ inviting perhaps a slap or a caning as much as a caress: Tynan’s sado-masochistic tastes and desires were well documented. Certainly, any simple celebration of sexual pleasure has been superseded by something more complex and interesting.
Boty left an important body of work that without question, enriches Pop yet, after her death, it was lost to cultural view for nearly 30 years. In the early 90s David Mellor, rediscovering key pieces lingering in a barn on Pauline’s brother’s farm, restored and exhibited them at the Barbican in 1993. Since then interest has gradually grown with a full retrospective originating at Wolverhampton Art Gallery and travelling to Chichester, Pallant House in 2013-14. She died young, before her reputation was more fully established, and no doubt the inherent sexism of the time was in play (there was talk of an exhibition after her death but somehow it never happened) and her proclaimed identification with mass culture was perhaps problematic for a movement that insisted on artistic 'detachment' from its low culture sources in order to be taken seriously. Boty has at last been written back into the story of art. In the wake of feminist interventions and postmodern collapse of hi/low cultural boundaries, the significance of the work is finally fully revealed and it resonates profoundly with contemporary understandings and concerns.
Dying so young the oeuvre is, of course, relatively small and much of it has been in private hands. A few major works have come onto the market through private galleries but very rarely to auction – so this is an important moment in the ever-unfolding story of the re-emergence of this important and ground-breaking artist.
We are very grateful to Dr Sue Tate, author of Pauline Boty: Pop Artist and Woman, Wolverhampton, 2013, for preparing this catalogue entry.