Think again... You've heard of the titans of the pop art movement – Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol – and their images of Coca-Cola bottles, Marilyn Monroe and Lucky Strike packets, but far from being purely the reserve of the American art scene in the 60s and 70s, this movement spanned the globe at a time when countries and societies were reeling from the fallout from WWII, raging conflict in Vietnam and the rise and rise of Communism. Artists were uniquely placed to satirise and deride politicians, film stars - and even other artists, using humour, sex and innovation to provoke, parody and reflect...
To the outside world, many of the artists in The EY Exhibition: The World Goes Pop existed on the peripheries of the movement; of course Warhol made the news with headline grabbing quotes – and continues to be the poster boy for all things Pop to this day – but many artists working across Europe, Latin America, the Middle East and Asia were hugely prolific in their own countries, and proved the movement was not just American, British or male. Many brought together for the first time, their significance is now re-examined in an explosion of visual stimulation.
Numerous artists created work that examined and questioned depictions of the female body in art and popular culture. Instead of being a purely ‘decorative’ element of a composition, the female body emerged throughout the 60s and 70s as a legitimate tool of protest and empowerment. The body was being reclaimed. No longer merely fetishised and glossy, there were uncomfortable questions being asked of its role in visual culture and mass media.
Artists such as Evelyne Axell (who for a time showed under the gender-ambiguous name Axell) decided that it now stood for power, liberation and equality. Introduced to painting by family friend René Magritte, Axell’s 1966 work Valentine was produced as a homage to Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman (and civilian) to go in to space. By attaching a helmet and zip to the canvas, Axell invites her viewer to peek through the zipper at the flesh beneath. Acutely aware of a woman’s reception in a male-dominated industry, her work frequently challenged perceptions of images of the female body and sexuality. Despite achieving a feat of daring exploration and discovery, many only commented on Tereshkova’s physical appearance. To further highlight this absurdity, Axell staged a happening in which a model performed a reverse strip-tease. She started naked apart from an astronaut’s helmet, adding layers of clothing as the performance went on to the delight of the assembled crowd. Catalan artist Mari Chordà also explored anatomy in Coitus Pop 1968, by abstracting the sexual organs in a burst of enamelled colour on wood - graphic shapes and unmistakably phallic.
In Anna Maria Maiolino’s striking Glu Glu Glu 1966, a disembodied head sits above brightly coloured intestines. She is female, but anonymous. The body parts are recognisable, but disconnected from the whole. It’s beautifully constructed using quilted fabric, which should be soft and tactile, but used to make glossy internal organs it becomes repulsive, visceral and unsettling.
War and Peace
Far from being purely about consumer habits and radical new fashion, pop art was a vehicle for artists to comment on political events and recent history. Nothing was off limits; Joan Rabascall’s Atomic Kiss was made as part protest, part warning sign. Whilst America fought in Vietnam, the very real threat of an impending world war terrified a generation who were living through vicious conflict. Sex and death are uncomfortable bedfellows, and he describes his motivation for using found imagery: ‘what was important, I believe, was to get away from abstract art, which was very present in galleries, and do something that was corresponding to the time in which we were living’. Read the full interview
America’s influence on fashion, art, music, and technology around the world couldn’t be denied, and a number of artists commented on this imperialism by depicting the American flag or President Kennedy – whose assassination in 1963 rocked the United States to the core, but the ripples were felt globally. Often these motifs were adopted with a fascination in the materials, processes and subject matters employed by Rauschenberg, Wesselman and their peers. A truly international society opened up with the advent of cheaper air travel and imported television and films. Other nations felt connected and invested in these news reports, and as such America’s agenda also belonged to the rest of the world. The Vietnam War was firmly in the sights of Finnish artist Reimo Reinikainen, with his series reworking the Stars and Stripes.
Japanese artist Keiichi Tanaami became obsessed with movies, television and adverts as a young boy growing up in Tokyo, watching up to 500 hundred films in one year. He himself has drawn comparisons with his work and that of Warhol – citing him as a huge influence after a visit to New York in the 1960s. With Japan still reeling from the atomic bomb attack in 1945, Tanaami turned his sights on the culture that was rebuilt in the aftermath of tragedy, and he still draws on this when making art: Today, I still create works that deal with my experience of war as a child. This moment of fear that a whole city can disappear just within a moment is a memory that has been recorded deep in my mind; it does not go away. Read the full interview
Strength in Numbers
Included in the exhibition are several works by groups of artists working under one name. Highly politicised, after years of civil war and living under General Franco’s regime, Joan Cardells and Jorge Ballester formed Equipo Realidad in Valencia in 1966. Far from adopting an introspective viewpoint, they explored Spain’s heritage and cultural traditions, examining them through the lens of modern society, developing as all other European territories were, at rapid speed.
They used found imagery and appropriated them or referenced it in their paintings, such as Robert Capa’s iconic photograph of a Spanish resistance fighter, Falling Soldier, and Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man in Divine Proportion 1967. Though they made work in Spain, Cardells said ‘our work was closely tied to current international events, more than national or local ones, because of censorship. We were cautious because censorship was watching us: we had a problem with a serigraphy of Che Guevara. But the critical stance was always above the local or the general’. Read the full interview.
Another group, Equipo Crónica, comprised of Rafael Solbes, Manuel Valdes and Juan Antonio Toledo was also operating in Valencia at the same time, forming in 1964 and also closely examining the changing face of the country they lived in. With a conservative fascist party in power, these groups we considered radical, and sometimes even anarchic thinkers — critical of conservative doctrines and passionate about the role played by the artist in society. They reinforce this by painting their own versions of famous Spanish paintings hailed as masterpieces the world over, such as Las Meninas, giving it a 1970s makeover, complete with patterned carpet, inflatable toys and a pot plant.
Rather than trivialising important motifs from Spanish culture, they focussed on the collision between past and present, and the emergence of mass-produced domestic items. In 1969 they painted Guernica ‘69 made in reference to Picasso’s famous protest painting of the same name. Their works were figurative, referenced other famous images, popular culture and events in the political landscape in which they were living, as a means of resisting the totalitarian state of Franco’s Spain.
2 by 2
The EY Exhibition: The World Goes Pop features many works that deal with the idea of multiples, doubles, mirror images and diptychs, as pop art turned its sights to the very new concept of mass production: in homewares, cars, gadgets, fashion, music and even weapons. Source material from advertising, music and film found its way on to gallery walls as artists experimented with techniques and image manipulation like screen-printing and collage, elevating their status from the domestic and everyday, to fine art.
Artists are uniquely placed to turn a mirror on society at large, and to broadcast back to their audience. Pop Art was something a general consumer population could relate to — it was not elitist; it used symbols, materials, products and images that people identified with, many of them would be in the average home in their kitchen cupboard or a photograph from a newspaper article. Magazine and comic strips were widely used, and not just by Roy Lichtenstein, as the history books may have you believe. French artist Dorothée Selz mimicked poses from a magazine to create her series Relative Mimetism highlighting the convention of using the female body as a sales tool and sex object, by placing the original and her version side-by-side.