Rommel in Lines

 Yes, this is another of those misleading titles.  What I meant to say was that Pop Art depended on where you were and who you were at the given time. This is my take on it.  So let me set the scene.

After the 1957 Young Contemporaries (where Robyn Denny scored highly with a sort of revived cubist collage involving sack-cloth and gold leaf), a wave of Abstract Expressionism, or what the press called “drip and dribble,” hit the  art schools, and dominated for a while.

A few years later I was living in St Ives. I had gone there because friends went on ahead, and said “Come and join us;” also because I admired de Kooning, and thought Peter Lanyon’s work might be a sort of bridge to American painting (which was mostly European painting anyway as it turned out). St Ives was where Pop Art reached us, in the form of an idea. As I remember it, we didn’t at first see any images, but we got the concept.  We were already grit in the St Ives oyster, where painting was supposed to be either abstraction with a landscape feel, or landscape with an abstract feel.  Images were meant to be mostly based on battered rectangles or circles, relatively thinly painted, in muted landscape colours. Nobody issued these edicts, but they were implicitly house rules for the Penwith Gallery, which was curiously much more conservative than the actual mature artists then working in the vicinity.

I said we were already an irritation because we used bold or brash colours, non-regulation shapes, and paint squeezed straight out of the tube.  Cruder, less sensitive, unrefined. The most obviously challenging painting I remember was one by Tony Shiels . It was about six foot square, with a disk of lemon yellow within the square and a dot of cadmium red in the middle, entitled Big Tit. It was a hazardous painting in more ways than one: I helped Tony to carry it to the Penwith, along the sea-wall, and a sharp gust of wind nearly dumped it and us into the sea..  But in spite of its satirical intent, Big Tit was not that far from what Terry Frost was doing at the same time.  The pull towards abstraction was still strong. Most of us were working non-figuratively. Lanyon was still using local colour, rather than the bold pigments of his later work, and Alan Lowndes, who had got to where he was in a Lowryesque idiom was momentarily teetering on the brink of a decision to go abstract.

 

The Big Cow

Pop Art meant a much more radical change. It meant a great expansion of subject-matter so that the man-made environment, with manufacturing, advertising and information, became valid subject matter of art. More broadly it meant “Back to figuration!” – we were free. We didn’t know what Pop Art in London was actually doing.  Not having seen it, we had to invent it.  This isn’t an entirely unfamiliar situation in the Arts – in 1846 Robert Browning wrote to Elizabeth Barrett:

“And years before that, the first composition I ever was guilty of was             something in imitation of Ossian, whom I had not read, but conceived,through two or three scraps in other books – ”

I expect there are plenty of other examples.  You need to remember that in the early ‘sixties everything moved more slowly than it does now.  Art Mags, such as they were, took time to catch up with what was happening now, and TV was still in monochrome. The first Peter Blake painting I saw (the self-portrait with the badges) was at the ICA in Dover Street, after I had moved from St Ives to London.

The new subject-matter, representational, could be almost anything.  There were of course nostalgically familiar objects – the England’s Glory matchbox, Staffordshire dogs and the Union Jack, for instance.  There were also those Airfix kits, assemblable plastic planes which could be painted up and transferred with insignia, and these in turn were conduits for the Second World War (as it is still misleadingly called).  We had lived through the end of that war and popular culture was flooded with its iconography, which still persists to a surprising degree. One of my friends made a number of paintings of downed bombers, and warplanes occur repeatedly in Colin Self’s work. I think they were not just part of an attempt to exorcise the war, but also the continuing violence, which would not go away.

The new subject-matter, even when well executed (which it often wasn’t) was not necessarily likeable. Terry Frost, for instance, a great encourager of younger artists, didn’t give up on me, but he didn’t like what I was doing. And after all, a man who had been stuck in a POW camp didn’t need reminding about the war. Abstraction was at least a space outside of politics.  Paintings of mine at that time upset others than Terry.  Someone at the Penwith said that I had “broken all the laws of art since the cave men!”  I considered that, and thought it would have been a great achievement,if only it could have been true.

The Stuka at the Bedroom Window

One of my paintings which used icons of war was The Stuka at the Bedroom Window.  It retained some of the loose handling learned from part of abstract expressionism, but the central story was the pleasant bed-room wall and curtains framing an evil dive-bomber, buzzing like a hornet.

A more metaphysical use of the related material was The Dog in the Window, where the Staffordshire dog sits calmly on the Union Jack, before a window looking out to a shell explosion on the Somme, during Germany’s invasion of France, ( taken from Rommel’s own photograph of June 5th 1940, reproduced in The Rommel Papers).

The Dog in the WIndow

 

Other non-high art representation systems  infiltrated painting – for instance the cartoon books of RB Crumb and others.  Some of Hockney’s early paintings show this sort of influence.

In The Cruel Elephant for instance, the area of grass under the elephant’s feet holds wavy lines of  written words: ‘crawling insects  crawling insects….” You could say, surprisingly, that Pop Art had reached the inclusivity previously aimed for by the Arts and Crafts Revival Movement. Anything represented or made by hand was in, without obvious divisions or hierarchies.

The Monster that Conquered the World Smiling at Lord Snowdon

‘What is conceivable can happen too’ – Wittgenstein. according to Empson. Finally there is a re-emergence of the vein of surrealism which runs through English art and literature – back through Alice to the William Blake of The Ghost of a Flea.  An example of this vein in my pop was a painting entitled The Monster that Conquered the World Smiling at Lord Snowdon.  The creature was based on an engraving of the zoea of a land-crab in a nineteenth century magazine. Another more simplified version of this creature, now embodying sexual aggressiveness, cropped up in pictures called Strange Fruit of Love and Look Out Little Noddy.  Lord Snowdon photographed everyone important at that time, so he would certainly have snapped the monster.

However, paintings don’t seem to like immediate obvious emotions, unless done by a genius like Goya, so in my case they became quieter. less obvious and more observatory, moving into still life, and later, increasingly, into landscape.

Pop Art included everything in the world, and it was fun. It was an antidote to the fuddy-duddy.  It had a wider reach. As for what it wasn’t, I think, after all, I’ll leave that to you.

Self portrait in the 'Sixties

 

 

 

 

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