Art & the Sixties, exhibition themes, You've Never Had it So Good

During the 1950s the austerity of post-war Britain was gradually displaced by a growing consumer culture. By 1957, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan could claim that most Britons had ‘never had it so good’. 

A small number of artists, mostly associated with the Independent Group at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, engaged with the imagery of this new modernity, insisting on an appreciation of popular imagery such as pin-up girls, science fiction, car design and the cinema. They did not necessarily celebrate this imagery and its consumerist values, but they believed that ‘pop art’ was as worthy of critical analysis as fine art.

BUNK is the title for a series of works that were originally pages of a scrapbook in which Paolozzi had stuck cuttings from magazines, mostly given to him by American ex-servicemen in Paris in the late 1940s. The word ‘BUNK’ stems from Henry Ford’s statement, ‘History is more or less bunk . we want to live in the present’. It reflects Paolozzi’s belief that art should respond to contemporary culture.

Hamilton made several paintings on the theme of the relationship between women and machines. The substitution of a dollar sign for the initial letter of ‘She’ indicates that he saw a relationship between the growing American-influenced consumer culture and the role and sexuality of women.

Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, ‘Meet the People’ 1948
Sir Eduardo Paolozzi
Meet the People 1948
© The estate of Eduardo Paolozzi
Richard Hamilton, ‘$he(1958)’ 1982
Richard Hamilton
$he(1958) 1982
© The estate of Richard Hamilton

Hamilton based this composition on a still from Shockproof, a late-1940s B-movie. As in the original still, the woman stands transfixed, by what we don’t know. But her setting has been transformed into a modern interior, combining the studio of painter Larry Rivers, and a stylish Eames chair in metal relief. 

Richard Hamilton, ‘Interior II’ 1964
Richard Hamilton
Interior II 1964
© The estate of Richard Hamilton
Peter Blake, ‘Self-Portrait with Badges’ 1961
Peter Blake
Self-Portrait with Badges 1961
© Peter Blake 2017. All rights reserved, DACS

This painting has been seen as a parody of Thomas Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy, one of the most famous works of British art. Here, however, the blue is that of Blake’s denim jacket and jeans. In 1961 these would have been seen as the epitome of American popular culture and the youthful rebellion represented by James Dean.