Roy Lichtenstein

Water Lilies with Japanese Bridge


Roy Lichtenstein 1923–1997
Screenprint on enamel on stainless steel
2115 x 1473 mm

Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by The Roy Lichtenstein Foundation Collection 2015
On long term loan

Not on display


Water Lilies with Japanese Bridge by the American artist Roy Lichtenstein depicts the surface of a body of water, on which float a number of water lilies. Reflected in the surface of the water is the silhouette of an arched bridge. The picture plane is divided into various curving vertical strips, which are filled in with solid colours such as black, green, white and orange, or with coloured diagonal stripes or dots over a white background. Some of the strips are made of smooth reflective stainless steel, and some have been treated with circular polishing. The print is not numbered.

Prior to making the print Lichtenstein made a sketch and a collage of the composition. His clippings from magazines show potential sources of inspiration for the flowing shapes and reflective quality of the water. The circular polishing, which Lichtenstein called the ‘swirling’ technique, was developed in collaboration with Saff Tech Arts, where Lichtenstein’s Water Lilies series was printed. The artist had first noticed a similar effect on cars of the 1920s and 1930s, and wanted to use it to imitate water ever since (Tuten 1992, unpaginated). Before the screen printing could be done, a new technique for achieving the swirling effect had to be developed, as no records could be found of existing ones. Lichtenstein and Saff Tech Arts developed a custom machine made out of a drill press fitted with shoe rubber, which when treated with an abrasive mixture created the swirls on the stainless steel (Corlett 1994, p.41). The pattern is the result of high levels of mechanical craftsmanship, yet imitates natural water with its dynamic reflections and shifts caused by light conditions.

Water Lilies with Japanese Bridge is part of a series of six works made in 1992 in which water lilies are the central subject (see also Water Lily Pond with Reflections 1992, Tate AL00374 and Water Lilies with Cloud 1992, Tate AL00372). They take inspiration from the water lily paintings by the French impressionist Claude Monet (1840–1926). Lichtenstein was familiar with these works, as he had visited Giverny where Monet had created them, and saw the paintings in the Museé de l’Orangerie in Paris twice (Tuten 1992, unpaginated). Earlier in his career Lichtenstein had translated the work of other famous artists, including as Pablo Picasso and Piet Mondrian, into his own pop art style (see, for example, Cubist Still Life 1974, National Gallery of Art, Washington, and Non-Objective I 1964, Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection, Los Angeles). He reduced these works to primary colours and used Ben Day dots to create specific effects and colours depending on their density and level of overlap. In 1969 he had reworked Monet’s Rouen Cathedral and Haystacks series into his own style (see Tate P07407P07413). He admired these older artists, but his treatment of their work calls attention to the fact that, halfway through the twentieth century, their paintings had become iconic popular images, as recognisable as Disney figures. In choosing these subjects, Lichtenstein brought ‘high’ and ‘low’ art closer together. Another source of inspiration from ‘low’ culture might have been the children’s book Little Beaver and the Echo by Amy MacDonald and Sarah Fox-Davies, containing similar drawings of waterlilies, which Lichtenstein owned a copy of (‘Image Duplicator’, Lichtenstein Foundation, cade=90&year=92&work_id=3765, accessed 18 November 2015).

With the development of cheap colour printing in the mid-twentieth century the paintings of artists such as Picasso and Monet became accessible to a wider audience, and thus became a type of consumer good. Lichtenstein’s appropriation and reworking of these paintings was a critical gesture, shedding light on the mechanical reproduction of art. In this work Lichtenstein combined the fleeting effects of impressionism (for example capturing reflections of light on water) with a systematic painting technique. He described it as ‘an industrial way of making Impressionism by a machinelike technique’ (quoted in Alloway 1983, p.53). Monet’s original paintings, such as Water-Lilies after 1916 (Tate L01903), focus solely on what can be seen on the water’s surface. They exclude the horizon from the frame and use perspective only sparingly, lending the work an abstract quality, which appealed to Lichtenstein. However, Lichtenstein’s insertion of the reflective steel surfaces into the print calls into question ideas about composition even further, as foreground and background are connected by the mirror-like stainless steel. Monet’s original vast panoramic paintings envelop the viewer, yet the reflective surface of Lichtenstein’s Water Lilies with Japanese Bridge prevents a similar immersion by accentuating the flatness of the work. It adds a barrier, a distance and a coolness absent in Monet’s work. The viewer and his or her surroundings are reflected in the work, creating an ever-changing surface but also a divide between the landscape depicted and the context of the viewer, who is always occupying the impenetrable reflective fields.

Further reading
Lawrence Alloway, Roy Lichtenstein, New York 1983.
Frederic Tuten, Roy Lichtenstein: Water Lilies, New York 1992.
Mary Lee Corlett, The Prints of Roy Lichtenstein: A Catalogue Raisonné 1948–1993, New York 1994.

Nina Romijn
University of Edinburgh
December 2015

The University of Edinburgh is a research partner of ARTIST ROOMS.

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