For an interesting overview on Pop Art, head to the Musée Maillol on rue de Grenelle, Paris where over 60 works, on loan from the Whitney Museum, New York, are displayed in an exhibition entitled ‘Pop Art – Icons that matter’. Although I am not a fan of Pop Art, I found the exhibition interesting in it’s explanation of the development and rise of Pop Art in 1960s America. One is reminded that Pop Art was conceived in a very different era to ours, one where there was a spectacular rise in consumerism and mass production of goods. Artists reacted to this environment of mass culture by representing ordinary everyday objects and iconic figures of their time in their art, drawing inspiration for their subject matter from the barrage of images which surrounded the consumer on billboards, advertising campaigns and comic books. Furthermore, this new generation of ‘pop’ artists reacted to the Abstract Expressionist movement of the previous generation, a movement which had dominated the art world in America in the 1950s. Abstract expressionists whose inspiration arose from the unconscious self, painted in a very personal style whereas ‘pop’ artists wanted to represent ‘popular culture’ and not their own feelings.
There are 24 artists represented at the exhibition but the opening work is by one of the era’s leading figures, Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997). The painting ‘Girl in the Window’ is immediately recognisable as a work by Lichtenstein who was well known for his use of comic book images in his art. The painting is typical of his style in its use of blocks of primary colours of red, yellow and blue and black outlines together with the application of Ben Day dots, an application which uses dots spaced in a way to create different shading and colour effects. The painting shows a smiling girl leaning out of a window with her hair blowing in the wind and it is an engaging and up beat image.
The next work that really caught my attention was ‘Madonna and Child’ by Allan D’Arcangelo ( 1930-1998) which is a painting of Jackie Kennedy and her daughter Caroline who are immediately recognisable by virtue of their clothes, hairstyles and Jackie’s pearls despite the fact that their faces are blank. Pop artists regularly used images of iconic figures of their time in their work and Jackie Kennedy was one such figure. I loved this painting for its simplicity yet powerful imagery depicting the First Lady and her daughter with halos, using an age-old religious theme of Madonna and Child to highlight contemporary icons. There was something a bit sad about the painting with their blank faces somehow suggesting a meaningless to their lives and this life of mass culture.
The nude, of course, has been depicted by artists from all eras from the lofty Venus’ of the Renaissance to Manet’s realist masterpiece ‘Olympia’, 1863. Tom Wesselmann (1931-2004) tackled this subject during the Pop Art era in a series entitled ‘Great American Nudes’ which is a series of 100 paintings executed between 1961 and 1973. Great American Nude #57, displayed at the exhibition is a dramatic piece showing a reclining nude with yellow blonde hair, a blank face except for bright red lips, bikini marks and exaggerated nipples, all very typical of Wesselmann’s nudes. Wesselman did not like to be labelled as a pop artist but his vibrant flat colours, billboard like feel to his paintings and the use of images from American popular culture have led to his inclusion in this group.
Another iconic figure of the era to feature in Pop Art was Marilyn Monroe and the depiction of her in Rosayln Drexler’s (born 1926) work called ‘Marilyn pursued by Death’, 1963, is striking. It is acrylic and paper collage on canvas, a medium frequently used by Drexler who was one of the few female pop artists to gain recognition. The two figures in the work are not placed in the centre but instead appear to the right with Marilyn running and being followed by a man who is running behind her as if shadowing her, suggesting that there is no escape from her unhappy destiny. The figures are outlined together in orange, both wearing sunglasses despite being set against a black background, all giving an uneasy feel to the whole scene.
Finally, no exhibition on Pop Art would be complete without the inclusion of one of the movements most iconic figures, Andy Warhol (1928-1987). Warhol was famous for producing several repetitions of an image in one installation, most famously his campbell soup cans. The exhibition includes his ‘Nine Jackies’, an acrylic, oil and screenprint on linen, with three rows of images, each row containing three repetitions of the same image of Jackie Kennedy all associated with the assassination of her husband. It is a poignant piece with the first three images showing a happy Jackie just before the assassination , the second row showing her during the funeral and the final row showing unguarded emotion during the swearing in of Johnson as the new president.
I still find Pop Art rather cold and lacking in beauty but the exhibition did a good job of explaining Pop Art against the backdrop of it’s era and I certainly have a better understanding and appreciation of it. For this reason, I found my visit to the exhibition worthwhile.