Illustrated companion

Pop Art in America was in part a reaction to the dominance of Abstract Expressionism there in the 1950s. As Roy Lichtenstein commented '... art has become extremely romantic and unrealistic, feeding on art, it is utopian, it has less and less to do with the world, it looks inward'. When asked why he chose to paint material such as comic strips and advertisements Lichtenstein replied, 'I accept it as being there, in the world. Signs and comic strips are interesting as subject matter. There are certain things that are usable, forceful and vital about commercial art.' In particular Lichtenstein was attracted by the way in which in comic strips highly emotionally charged subject matter was conveyed in 'standard, obvious and removed techniques'. This characteristic of comics gave him the clue as to how he might make paintings in which striking and emotive subject matter could be presented in a very cool, formal way, giving equal emphasis to the abstract and decorative qualities of the painting without immediately apparent expression of the personality of the artist. One important result of this approach is that spectators are left in the position of having to consider the subject for themselves rather than being offered a comment by the artist.

'Whaam!' is one of a large group of paintings based on comic strip images made by Lichtenstein in the early 1960s and which brought him international acclaim. Their subjects are almost all either of love or war and they constitute a fascinating, thought provoking and often witty compendium of images dealing with these topics of perennial human significance.

Like other leading American Pop artists, Lichtenstein was concerned to preserve as far as possible the essential character of his source material, which he did so successfully that many critics complained that he was simply enlarging the comic images. In fact, Lichtenstein's comic sources were painted by him in a fundamentally traditional way. He began by making a sketch of the scene, in much the same way as, for example, John Constable would sketch a piece of Suffolk landscape for later elaboration into a full-size painting. In the sketch Lichtenstein adjusts and strengthens the original composition, making both omissions and additions, and devises a colour scheme using the simple primaries of comic art but bearing no necessary relation to the original. The drawing is traced onto the canvas using a projector. The finished paintings, as in the case of 'Whaam!' are notable for their bold colours and often extraordinary forms, which while retaining a strong representational function, take on a life of their own as abstract and expressive shapes. Examples here include the black elements, like snake's tongues, in the flames of the explosion, or the extraordinary amoeba-like form of its yellow core. The highly stylised nature of this painting is also emphasised by its large scale.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.242