Allentown Art Museum presents British Pop Prints exhibition until June 22, 2014. The exhibit highlights 23 British Pop prints with names like Peter Phillips, David Hockney, Ronald Kitaj and Sir Peter Bake. The show was organized to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the British Invasion.
Pop Art is often linked to American artists such as Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol, though, it began five years earlier with the British. In the late 1950s, Britain underwent a cultural explosion in the areas of music, art, fashion and film that lingered into the 1960s.
Following the Second World War, the United States experienced a remarkable phase of economic and political growth. Middle class Americans relocated to suburbia to dwell in economically priced mass-produced houses. Musically, Elvis Presley paved the way for rock and roll, television began to supersede the radio, and film stars like Marilyn Monroe were the epitome of Hollywood and all that is glamorous.
The mid 50s and early 60s set a “cultural revolution” set in motion. It began with artists, musicians and theorists who strove to reconsider and upend a “stifling social order ruled by conformity.” There were movements against war, for equality and liberation.
Pop Art unofficially began in 1952. In post-war London, a group of British artists created the Independent Group in reaction to Abstract Expressionism. The young creative that included painters, sculptors, writers and even critics dissented by obscuring the connection between “high and low art.” The movement was about mass culture, product design and advertising, technology and the engulfing media.
In 1956, London’s Whitehall Chapel staged This is Tomorrow exhibit that presented what would become known as British Pop Art to Londoners and the world. At that time, artists began searching for inspiration and attempting to conceive something innovative. According to museum curator, Diane Fischer, it was intended to “be an affront to the polite British art world.”
David Hockney may be one of the most renowned artists in Pop culture; however, other artists were more familiar for their work but not their name. For example, viewers will recognize the cover art for the Beatle’s album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band but not know that artist, Sir Peter Blake, created it.
One of the highlighted artist’s in the exhibit is British sculptor, printmaker and collagist, Sir Eduardo Paolozzi. His sculptures and collages such as I Was a Rich Man’s Plaything combined surrealism and Pop art. The word, “pop” appeared in his piece in a cloud of a smoking revolver. It was the first time that the actual word had been presented in art. Today, he is considered the “inventor of Pop Art.” Soon after, artist, John McHale, used the moniker and by 1955, the recognized British Pop Art movement was well underway.
British Pop Art emerged differently from American Pop Art. In North America, it became the artist’s method of expression to depict the ordinary in daily life. They concentrated on mockery and contradiction of consumerism with the intention of making it eye-catching and comprehensible to all. Any American that regarded the work would instinctively recognize it. On the contrary, post-war Britain centered on the intellectual interpretation of Pop Art by portraying the reality of Britain who was “influencing the whole world with their way of living.”
British Pop in contrast to American Pop was exceptional in its assessment of the clichéd and showy characteristics of American mass media from afar. With Britain’s economy recovering from World War II, there was a growing fascination of American consumerism and rock and roll, which helped shape Pop Art. Like British Pop artists such as Richard Hamilton, British rockers like John Lennon and Eric Clapton had also gone to art school. Again, there was a blur with Pop Art and British music expressing post-war optimism. The themes were lighthearted, and colors were vibrant with graphics that were imaginatively simple yet innovative.
In reaction against the “loose technique” and serious-mindedness of Abstract Expressionism, the Pop artists looked to return to the more recognizable forms of representation. They deemed “art” generated by Madison Avenue and Hollywood just as significant as any artwork in a museum or gallery. Therefore, they disputed traditional fine art and fine art institutions by appropriating images from American pop culture.
Pop artists preferred printmaking and silk screening as their medium, as seen in the exhibit because their work could be created mechanically and in quantity as needed. They began using primary colors and paint straight from the tube. The Pop artists downplayed working with an “artist’s hand” and subverted the notion of originality.
By irrevocably altering traditional boundaries of printmaking, painting and photography, and tapping into pop culture in preference to fine arts, British Pop Art artists opened the doors to the postmodern movement, and left behind a legacy both in Britain and beyond.
By: Dawn Levesque
Fine Arts Council