British Pop Art
Summary of British Pop Art
Although the term Pop art is usually associated with the work of artists working in New York in the 1960s such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, the movement actually found its earliest voice in Britain a decade earlier. Still recovering from World War II, with a bankrupt population dependent on rations, the nation's artists looked west to the new consumerist paradise being advertised in the prospering United States. British Pop art rose out of a strong outsider's perspective as it looked both longingly and critically, yet with a healthy sense of irony, at the new visual imagery arising from this far off dream where everything from toasters to cars to beauty creams were placed on colorful pedestals in the glossy pages of magazines or touted on television in the hands of long legged beauty queens.
As early British Pop artists like Eduardo Paolozzi, Richard Hamilton and Peter Blake began to borrow heavily from this marketing language of post-War Americana, they initiated a significant movement away from the traditional parameters of what constituted art. This departure from tradition also extended to new techniques such as collage and commercial screen printing - breaking down previous orthodox distinctions between art and design, popular culture and high culture, and between mass production and individuality. The work also complemented, and often was intricately connected to, the energetic pop music scene, which originated around the same time in Britain marked by bands such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- British Pop artists aimed to shake up a stale art tradition in which works were customarily related to mythological, biblical, or emotional themes. Pop art became their vehicle of expressing this hunger for change. Although much of their inspiration was founded in the Dadaist language of creating irrational combinations of random images to provoke a reaction from the establishment of the day, British Pop artists found their original fodder in the brash, fun, and bold world of contemporary culture. Their new work thrived with a youthful energy, and by infusing their topics with humor, new images began to topple the historical parameters of art by representing the current mood.
- Although British Pop art makes extensive use of the American advertising that came out of the post-World War II consumer boom, it remains distinct from American Pop art. This is due to the fact that while American artists were primarily inspired by what they saw and experienced within their own culture, early Pop art in Britain was fueled by American popular culture viewed from a distance. Later, as the swinging London musical and fashion scenes began to rise, British artists began incorporating the culture of their own country into their artistic lexicon as well.
- By utilizing innovative advertising and design industry methods such as screen printing and collage-style graphic layouts, artists were able to construct works reminiscent of ads, album covers, pages of popular magazines, posters, catalogs, and other marketing-related propaganda. By creating relatable works that tweaked resonance within the common man, British Pop art successfully pierced the veil between high and low art making it accessible to all.
- By making art that was essentially about art, embedded with a strong adverse reaction to the introspection and elitism that had dominated Abstract Expressionism, British Pop artists reintroduced the image as a structural device. Subject and object became the same thing, instantly recognizable and un-laden with abstraction. This neutrality and literalness provided artists with an opportunity to explore the visual and physical qualities of the medium while asking the viewer to reevaluate preconceived notions about what constitutes art.
Overview of British Pop Art
Saying, “I can't bear to throw things away - a nice wine bottle, a nice box. Sometimes I feel like a wizard in Toytown, transforming a bunch of carrots into pomegranates,” Eduardo Paolozzi began making collages in 1947. Using cutouts from American advertising images and comic strips he pioneered Pop Art.
Important Art and Artists of British Pop Art
This collage, composed of a selection of images from American magazines given to Paolozzi by American ex-soldiers in Paris, was created as part of a series noted for prompting the beginnings of the Pop art movement. The work is credited for being the first to use American advertising toward creating a new visual language for a post-War world.
The collage includes the cover of a magazine called "Intimate Confessions", which features a voluptuous woman who, it is implied, spills her secrets inside the magazine. Paolozzi combines this with an image of a cherry pie, pointing to the similar treatment of women and food as objects of desire in the seductive new sphere of American advertising. She is also faced with an image of a hand holding a gun, which has been fired and says "POP!" in a cartoonish way. This is considered to be the first use of the word "pop" in art of this type. The inclusion of the gun makes the effect of the work slightly sinister, giving an unsavory twist to the "confessions" supposedly revealed in the magazine. At the same time, however, the gun with its seemingly harmless "pop", perhaps points to advertisers' and consumers' preference for visual effect over real substance or quality. While this work was a vital forerunner of the movement, it also differs from later work by artists such as Richard Hamilton or Peter Blake. This early example makes use of a significantly less polished aesthetic than later Pop art works, taking dog-eared or dirty cuttings from advertisements and mounting them on a similarly marked and unclean piece of card.
For this collage, Hamilton uses images cut from American magazines to create a contemporary interior featuring fashionable furniture and modern domestic products such as a television, tape recorder, and vacuum cleaner. In the room are a muscleman holding a suggestive lollipop, which bears the word "POP", and a naked woman who is perched provocatively on the couch. The man and woman are posited as a modern day Adam and Eve, surrounded by the temptations of the American post-War consumer boom.
The work was created by Hamilton for the catalog cover of the seminal 1956 exhibition at London's Whitechapel Gallery, "This is Tomorrow," which was a key starting point for the British Pop art movement. Similarly, the work has been credited as being fundamental in initiating the movement; as early as 1965 is was described as "the first genuine work of Pop."
Hamilton's collage microcosm presents a world in which there is a constant influx of information. In drawing up a list of the image's components, Hamilton pointed to his inclusion of "comics (picture information), words (textual information) [and] tape recording (aural information)." This sense of information overload became compounded at the time by the addition of the television, newspaper, and cinema. A comic cover has been framed on the wall adjacent to a more traditional piece of artwork (which is smaller, and is relegated to the corner), illustrating both Hamilton's idea of Pop as a new kind of art with popular culture as its key source and the breakdown of the walls between fine art and graphic design.
In this piece, Blake combines images of ordinary, everyday people with a plethora of references to the theme "On the Balcony." These range from ephemeral magazines and snapshots to consumer goods to the art found in museums and galleries. For example, the figure on the left-hand side holds a copy of Eduard Manet's The Balcony (1868), while a copy of LIFE magazine obscures another figure's head. The youthful subjects appear to be teenagers and can be seen as tokens of a fresh generation receptive to Pop art's key principles, which were the breakdown of traditional understandings of the art object and sources, and the breakdown of the boundaries between art and popular culture.
Although On the Balcony may look like a collage, it is actually an oil painting. This signature technique was used by Blake to create an altogether new version of the Pop art aesthetic. His accumulation of imagery, all represented through paint on a singular plane, came to represent an overall visual consciousness which married both high and low art sources with no discernable boundaries between the two. Perceived value between subjects becomes blurred in Blake's homogenous depictions - a thumb in the eye to the hallowed halls of the institution of painting.
Useful Resources on British Pop Art
- Richard HamiltonBy Richard Hamilton edited by Richard Morphet
- David Hockney: The Biography, 1937-1975Our PickBy Christopher Simon Sykes
- No Place Like Utopia: Modern Architecture and the Company We KeptBy Peter Blake
- Pop Artby Klaus Honnef
- British Pop Art and Postmodernismby Justyna Stpie
- Pop Art UK: British Pop Artby Walter Guadagni
- The World Goes Popby Jessica Morgan and Flavia Frigeri
- Pop Art (World of Art)Our Pickby Lucy Lippard
- The Best of British Pop Art - In PicturesThe Guardian / October 8, 2013
- Five British Pop ArtistsThe Art Fund / February 13, 2014
- A Guide to Pop Art: Paolozzi and the Original Young British ArtistsBy Mike Pinnington / The Double Negative / August 25, 2015
- When the World Went PopOur PickBy Randy Kennedy / New York Times / April 8, 2015