Last Week I went to the newly opened pop art exhibition in the Tate Modern with my father. My father is a man of many talents and interests, chief of these being his love of art and need to be informed on all matters, including the most recent exhibitions to open in London.
I absolutely loved the exhibition. I’ve always liked pop art because it’s something a bit different and always fun to look at, but I never thought of it as much more than ‘fun’. This exhibition showed me just how wrong, naïve and uninformed I was. With the help of the audioguide (a must!) and the blurbs introducing each room, I now feel much clever-er. Thank you Tate.
Traditionally pop art is seen as a symbol of American consumerism, think Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup cans, but this exhibition shows that during the time pop art began, a period of political unrest with the cold war at its helm, it was more frequently a political statement and not just confined to America. The subtly of art as a political tool (ie. Propaganda), and also the way it manages to create a loophole within censorship, makes it the perfect and appropriate expression of political opposition in the equally unclear political situation during the Cold War.
This is the first work that stood out to me as I entered and the first of many examples of pop art being used to make a subversive political statement.
This work is a comment on censorship and oppression with the tongue pinned down.
The artist, Jerzy Ryszard “Jurry” Zieliński (quite a mouthful) was a co-founder of the polish political activist group Neo Neo Neo that used art to oppose government.
Here, naturally, the face of the whole exhibition. - Such stunning colours!
The annual doll festival is often a subject in Japnese art, but traditionally in woodblock prints like the one below. I love how this tradition has been ‘made pop’.
This was another interesting one – a collection of ethnographies by Eulàlia Grau
His images deal with juxtapositions found in the media, and so deals with the tension between different situations in society. The effect that capitalism has in class societies, women in the domestic sphere etc.
Grau was a pioneer of feminism in art, especially in Spain where women went from daughter to wife and were seen as property- see the picture above of a bride being hoovered by a vacuum cleaner.
“Pop tends to be associated with a kind of deadpan humour distanced from overt social commentary, but [these works] demonstrate its capacity to address political themes head-on.”*
Another Spanish artist and political activist, Joan Cardells co-founded the Equipo Realidad in 1966, to serve society through art. The group aimed to disrupt conventional values and confront themes of war, politics, consumerism, femininity, the role of art and the status quo of Francisco Franco’s administration.
In this clever work, the iconic image of Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man is subverted by replacing the anatomical study with an American soldier. They challenge the inflated value placed on European art and the growing imperialism of the American war machine.
I always find it quite satisfying (and I feel a lot less stupid) when I recognise the original image that is being subverted before the lady on the audioguide tells me. ;)
And again here! (snaps for Missie!)
This was one of my favourites in the whole exhibition.
As you probably will have realised, the pointing hand is a clear play on the US war recruitment posters of Uncle Sam pointing, captioned “I WANT YOU”.
(This always makes me think about the Beatles cover of I Want You in Across the Universe - a brilliant, if slightly bizarre film.)
The drop of blood is 3D, unlike the rest of the painting, and is meant to heighten the contrast already present in taking a well-known image. The drop transforms this very well-know image into a critique of the war. The work of art was made during the American war in Vietnam when people were protesting imperialism around the world and had serious repercussions in Brazil, where the artist was from.
“Pop art’s flourishing coincided with the Vietnam War and artists across the world responded to it in their work.”* The focus was frequently critical towards America’s role and also addressed civil rights abuses within the Artists' own countries around the world as with the painting above.
Right next to this was a painting by Joav BarEl challenging the popular view that Kennedy was shot one bullet that passed through the president and then also hit the Texas Governor riding in the same limousine., known as the “magic bullet theory”. (The debate centres around whether the shooter Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, which I have to admit I had no idea about.)
(The target is also a well-known motif of pop art in the US.)
This might actually be my favourite of the whole exhibition.
The work was painted when the contraceptive pill was not yet legal in France and conversations about it were secretive. The pill became legal the following year after much debate.
The work combines different parts of the debate: the French word “conciliabules” refers to a secret conversation and also to an ecclesiastical assembly, pointing out the strong opposition of the Catholic Church.
Another strong political message:
The words on the partition say: “screen” – “is good” – “for everything”
It comments on the ‘screening off’ of female subjectivity. At the bottom is a pink shape showing, hiding the woman on the other side.
The artist explored gender differences in a patriarchal, increasingly consumerist society by “tapping into what she referred to as a ‘reservoir of femininity-related’ issues.”* but she interestingly did not identifying herself as a feminist.
I thought this next one was quite fun and with an even more interesting message. (A combination of painting and latex silhouettes)
It's an example of how female artist were finding different ways to represent interiority. The representation of the body was to be experienced from within rather than perceived and evaluated from outside. Most of the projects about the body in pop were connected, in different ways, with female liberation- a global political current of the period. "All created alternatives to representations of the female body offered up for the consumption of a heterosexual male viewer.”*
Hanging is a response to the notion that there is a loss of individuality. It is critical of that and mass consumption which reduces all to one standardised mass. It reminds viewers of the increasing commodification of the body.
Hanging is a perfect example of how pop art is both playful as well as critical.
Another beautiful one. (The work is in colour, but I thought it looked good in black and white too)
It is meant to exaggerate the cliché of heartbreak conventionally associated with feminine sentimentality.
Cancela said, “the subject matter of my work was the idea of the heart as a symbol of womanhood…a symbol from mass media, a kind of naïve image of women.” (Preach it Sista!!!!)
The shapes hanging at the bottom could either be fragment of the broken heart above or could be alluding to other bodily organs, "transforming the simple romantic emblem into something more visceral."*
All the walls of the next room were covered in female silouettes by the Bratislavan graphic designer and illustrator Jana Zelibska. She used mirrors and fabric, often inviting some form of interaction, “staging intimate encounters with bodily imagery.
The name Kandarya-Mahadeva refers to the temple in India and draws on elements of tantric Hinduism and erotic rituals. The outlined bodies are of female dancers, their genitals replaced by mirrors “sabotaging any attempted voyeurism.”*
Another funny one and an example of how protestors began pouring into the streets to take action in the 1960s, which would become a symbol of the decade.
Nicola L‘s Red Coat turns eleven people into a single unit liberated from distinctions of class, gender or ethnicity. One skin shared by eleven individuals.
The coat was designed for Brazilian musicians performing at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1969 and was used to protect from rain and prevent them from losing each other. After the festival she took the coat to various cities, asking strangers to wear it and walk through the streets together.
This room however also show that a crowd is not always synonymous with freedom. Think of the enforced uniformity of communism. There was also art involving images of Lenin and Stalin.
There was a small room on folk pop art, something I would have never thought existed because it seems a bit contradictory. Yet the exhibition explained that both folk and pop art share an interest in everyday visual culture supposedly separate from “high art”.*
In this room was another favourite:
The artist wanted to show how local customs absorb popular and iconic images (da Vinci’s Last Supper) and reconfigure them. Her interest in art was as a provincial, everyday reality and this table serves as “a symbol of Colombia’s Eurocentric gaze”* similar to the vitruvian man above
The last room reminds us of the relationship between art and consumer society that runs through pop art. Here was art that deals with the lure and act of consumerism. The risk that art might become a consumable product, but also the power of art to subvert and oppose the operations of global capitalism.*
Boris Bućan uses corporate icons as some of the most recognisable forms of art to show just this.
Bućan take some of the most ubiquitous brand images and replaces the brand names in the logo with the word art. The aim is to makes us think about how art is sold as a product, but also suggests that art might be the ultimate experience. Something that transcends anything else we might buy.*
In the western world, pop art made us think about what the consumer world was doing but in other parts of the world the meaning was sharper and had weightier consequences. It had an entirely different, more profound agenda. The exhibition widens the world of pop art including all messages that were often overlooked in the history of pop art until now.
There were so many more incredible works about which I could write at length, but I want to leave some for you to see, for when you go. I really seriously recommend you go. I was blown away by how narrow my understanding of pop art was and how much more there is to know.