Jeff Keen

A Poème Choisi

1950

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Not on display
Artist
Jeff Keen 1923–2012
Medium
Ink, gouache and printed paper on paper
Dimensions
Support: 375 x 278 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 2012
Reference
T13662

Summary

A Poème Choisi 1950 is a collage with ink on paper in which, over a partial ground made up of cut and torn fragments of newspapers, a naked female half-figure has been drawn in black ink, at one with the decoratively looping calligraphic writing above that acts as a title for the work. The cuttings range from a Russian text to a list of seasonal vegetables and a ‘worker’s notebook’. The addition of a colour nature photograph and a lingerie advertisement add further texture in unpicking the work’s possible meanings. Keen used a similar composition for his collage Lulu 1950 (Tate T13664), although in A Poème Choisi the cuttings form more of a background to the figure which is drawn directly over them.

Together with Lulu and two other collages of the same date also in Tate’s collection (The Visitation 1950, Tate T13661, and Figure Defying a Flag 1950, Tate T13663), A Poème Choisi reveals the shifts in register that Keen’s graphic work was taking at the time; away from a concern with the calligraphic and automatic drawn line – which conflated surrealist and neo-romantic sensibilities to confront the realities of austerity Britain in the throes of postwar reconstruction – towards an identification of popular culture as the material of his artistic language, with collage as the means of delivering a multilayered image. In this Keen shared much with the example provided by artists such as Nigel Henderson (1917–1975) and Eduardo Paolozzi (1924–2005), both of whom moved, through an awareness of surrealism, towards a use of collage that the architects Alison and Peter Smithson suggested ‘tries to face up to a mass production society, and drag a rough poetry out of the confused and powerful forces which are at work’. (Alison and Peter Smithson, ‘The New Brutalism’, Architectural Design, April 1957, reprinted in The Independent Group: Postwar Britain and the Aesthetics of Plenty, exhibition catalogue, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London 1990, p.186.)

Keen only made collages in this vein for a short period in the early 1950s, alongside drawings that continued to utilise the conventions of surrealism to convey an increasingly dystopian pop-cultural worldview. However, when he moved to making films, initially with the American poet Piero Heliczer in 1960, a collage and assemblage aesthetic came to underpin both its form and subject. The film historian David Curtis has described Keen’s creation of a pop art film language, unique in Britain at the time, as drawn from the fusing together of a diaristic form with collage animation, producing films that are ‘energetically constructed from layer upon layer of comic strip collage, time-lapse cartooning, languid reconstructions of Hollywood vamps … and graphic image destruction (burning plastic toys, barbed-wire-entanglement-time-lapse graffiti’ (David Curtis, Experimental Cinema: A Fifty-Year Evolution, London 1971, p.149).

After 1960 Keen worked as a pioneering underground filmmaker, embracing especially the practice of expanded cinema. A central member of the London Film-Makers’ Co-operative in the 1960s, his filmic and visual language is closely bound up with the mass media (comic books, pulp fiction, television, and established printed forms from newspapers to signage) and he engaged deeply with the language of pop art. His films are formally characterised by the extensive and radical use of stop-frame animation, lending them a frequency of speed not found in the work of other filmmakers of the period. His collage approach to filmmaking as a sharply inter-cut flood of mass-cultural imagery lends a significance to his collages of the early 1950s in which he first explored this effect.

Further reading
William Fowler, GAZWRX: The Films of Jeff Keen, London 2009.
Jeff Keen: Oeuvres de 1945 à 1978, exhibition catalogue, Galerie du Centre, Paris 2011.

Andrew Wilson
March 2012

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