Jeff Keen

Figure Defying a Flag


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Not on display
Jeff Keen 1923–2012
Ink and printed paper on paper
Support: 380 x 285 mm
Purchased 2012


Figure Defying a Flag 1950 is a collage with ink in which a torn newspaper cutting about venereal disease is positioned under a roughly drawn horizon line. A drawn flag pole rises up from a schematic base drawn over the cutting, its French tricolour flag constructed from the product wrapping for Red White & Blue small leaf tea. To the right of the flag pole is a biomorphic gesturing body made from a cut-out magazine illustration of a sandy beach, and at the figure’s tip is drawn a rendering of an anus in red and black ink which recalls the graphic forms in the work of the Catalan surrealist painter Joan Miró (1893–1983). The image suggests a mocking of establishment values, which is underscored by the flag being made from a wrapper for tea, a product associated with the British Empire.

Together with three other collages of the same date in Tate’s collection (The Visitation, Tate T13661, A Poème Choisi 1950, Tate T13662, and Lulu 1950, Tate T13664), Figure Defying a Flag 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 Filmmaker’s Co-op 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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