Roy Lichtenstein

Water Lily Pond with Reflections


On display at Tate Liverpool

Roy Lichtenstein 1923–1997
Screenprint on enamel on stainless steel
1473 x 2146 mm

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


Water Lily Pond with Reflections by the American artist Roy Lichtenstein depicts the surface of a body of water, on which float a number of water lily flowers in various shades of yellow, surrounded by lily pads. Three of the flowers are in the bottom half of the image, and one is near the top left corner. All four are surrounded by a number of lily pads, most of which are blue or white. The impression of the water’s surface is created by a complex structure of curving vertical strips that are filled in with solid blues, light greys, reflective steel and diagonally striped or dotted patterns in green, black and blue. They are overlaid by interconnected horizontal strips made of reflective steel that have been treated with circular polishing. The print is not numbered.

Prior to making the print Lichtenstein made a drawing and a collage of the composition. 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 Lily Pond with Reflections is part of a series of six works made in 1992 in which water lilies are the central subject (see also Water Lilies with Japanese Bridge 1992, Tate AL00373, 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, unpagintated). The water lilies series can be considered a continuation of Lichtenstein’s interest in Monet’s work. In 1969 her had reproduced Monet’s Rouen Cathedral and Haystacks series (Tate P07407P07413), reinterpreting them in his own pop art style, characterised by the use of primary colours and Ben Day dots, which create specific effects and colours depending on their density and overlap. However, Monet was not the only artist Lichtenstein used as a source. From the 1960s Lichtenstein created ‘pop’ versions of works by Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí and Piet Mondrian (see, for instance, Cubist Still Life 1974, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Girl with Tear I 1977, Guggenheim, New York, and Non-Objective I 1964, Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection, Los Angeles). 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 (which Lichtenstein had first used as subject matter in Look Mickey 1961, National Gallery of Art, Washington).

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). Art historian Mary Lee Corlett has also remarked on this aspect of Lichtenstein’s work: ‘he is neither paying homage nor denigrating but is calling our attention to all that he finds important, using forms and techniques appropriate to a time that knows most works of art through mechanical reproduction.’ (Corlett 1994, p.42.)

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 Lily Pond with Reflections 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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