History of Nothing is a print in soft ground aquatint on white paper with extensive overworking in black ink. The composition suggests sections of a film reel or a photographic contact sheet, with strips of images placed side by side in ten columns. Each strip comprises thirteen individual frames, totalling some 130 frames in the complete composition. In each of the frame an object, scene or pattern is crudely delineated in black. The subjects of the individual frames evoke for the most part technology and the industrial age, presenting details of cogs, wheels and other mechanisms. Some frames show faces or buildings. Occasionally two frames show the same subject matter: a bus moving through a tunnel, an aeroplane in flight, or the face of a mewing cat. Placed sequentially they resemble a short film sequence, and create a sense of movement between frames. However, individually most of the scenes suggest stasis. They emphasise a lack of movement and thus a lack of coherency between frames.
The title of the print, History of Nothing, is incorporated into the print at the top right. It is marked as an artist’s proof and signed in pencil. Writing to Tate curator Chris Stephens in 1999, Paolozzi did not remember ever having editioned the print, and no records of an edition size exist (20 December 1999, Tate Acquisition File.)
This print is linked with Paolozzi’s short, black and white film of around the same date, entitled The History of Nothing
(c.1961–2) (British Film Institute Archive), to the extent that some of the images that Paolozzi included in P78339 are directly related to those found in the film. P78339 is therefore also linked to the screenprint Four Stills from the History of Nothing 1962 (P04748), which translates four of the film’s images into colour. The film’s ironical title indicates that the conventional presentation of a linear narrative – or history – is here disrupted (Kirkpatrick, p.87), and suggests that the imagery is not underwritten by an intrinsic meaning or point. Paolozzi described History of Nothing as ‘a homage to Surrealism’ (quoted in Spencer, p.97). Using collage, Paolozzi created surreal images for the film that juxtapose incongruous and out-of-scale elements. Engines and machine parts are superimposed on landscape settings or cityscapes to create uncanny panoramas. In one sequence a female nude looms in front of the exterior wall of a church; in another, a detail of the classical statue Laocoön is framed in the windscreen of a car. The images were filmed in London by film-maker Denis Postle and put together in a rapidly edited sequence against a soundtrack of music and sound effects.
From 1960–2 Paolozzi was appointed as a visiting professor at the Hochschule für bildende Künst in Hamburg and taught a course there on Surrealism that he entitled ‘The Translation of Experience’. Much of the raw material of the collages used in the film History of Nothing derives from damaged books that Paolozzi and his students had gathered as part of their course (Spencer, p.95). The contemporaneous screen-printed book Metafisikal Translations 1962 (P09056–P09098; P09215–P09216) includes a shooting-script for History of Nothing. Some of the book’s images appear in both P78339 and the film, including one of the face of a clock with hands pointing to 9 o’clock (P09076). The imagery that Paolozzi deploys in the film and P78339 can also be linked to other, later works by the artist. The print Wittgenstein in New York 1964 (P04767) from the series As Is When (P04756–P04768), suggests some of the same visual themes as The History of Nothing, but here the imagery has evolved from black and white into colour. In 1984, Paolozzi created colourful patterns of grids, networks and other elements in his designs for the mosaics for Tottenham Court Road underground station in London. Motifs including the saxophone, butterfly and clock face evoke those found in P78339.
Robin Spencer, ed., Eduardo Paolozzi: Writings and Interviews, Oxford 2000.
Richard Cork, ed., Eduardo Paolozzi Underground, Royal Academy, London 1986.
Diane Kirkpatrick, Eduardo Paolozzi, London 1970.