Eduardo Paolozzi – Pop Art genius in retrospect at Whitechapel Gallery
By James Brewer
Millions of people are having a free preview of the latest Whitechapel Gallery exhibition, as they or their tube train scurry past the glass mosaic wall designs of Sir Eduardo Paolozzi when travelling on the Northern and Central Lines through Tottenham Court Road Station. Many other people daily see Paolozzi’s public art elsewhere in London, in Manchester, Edinburgh and other locations in the UK and Germany.
The Central and Northern Lines are each used by 800,000 people a day, and these and other sites with a captive albeit usually passive audience are a wonderful ‘trailer’ to affirm that contemporary art plays a greater part in modern life than many people appreciate. To discover what one of the restive giants of the era offered in many fields – pop art, textile, sculpture, woodcuts, screen-printing, collage – it is well worth paying the £11.95 (£9.50 concessions) asked for a ticket to the London gallery. Quite some value: sum is less than the price of a zone one to four Travelcard.
Eduardo Paolozzi (1924-2005) was one of the most innovative and irreverent – the latter word is repeated frequently by curator Daniel Herrmann when he refers to the man – figures of 20th century arts. Thousands of art students were inspired by him through his many teaching posts.
Born in the Scottish port city of Leith to Italian parents, Paolozzi is considered the ‘godfather of Pop Art,’ a few years ahead of US practitioners such as Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol.
His role at the head of that phenomenon stemmed from a lecture (with the title Bunk!) he delivered at the then recently established Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in 1952. Paolozzi projected a barrage of collages and pages from scrapbooks onto a screen. American magazine adverts for Cadillacs and tinned tuna, pictures of pinup girls, arrangements of magazine cut-outs. Without saying a word during the ‘talk’ he was in effect announcing the arrival of pop art, although he had entered the genre with his 1947 collage I was a Rich Man’s Plaything.
Some of the artists and architects gathered for the ICA show went on to form with him the so-called Independent Group which challenged modernism by drawing on mass culture for its themes and gave impetus to British pop art.
Paolozzi would later transform public places as in his 1979 designs for the platforms of the Tottenham Court Road station with coloured mosaic patterns (he insisted on using expensive mosaics from Murano), the cast iron sculpture Piscator for Euston Square and the Rheingarten project in Cologne.
The mosaics from the arches over the Tube ticket office were removed as part of the redevelopment of the station for the Crossrail project, and were donated to the collection of the University of Edinburgh, where Paolozzi studied and was later a visiting professor.
The frenetic mural designs represent Paolozzi’s fascination with mechanisation (he was interested in the clash between man and machine, the confrontation between nature and culture), and reflects features including the concentration of hi-fi and electronics shops in the Tottenham Court Road thoroughfare, jazz music, and Egyptian images beckoning to the nearby British Museum. He loved jazz, rock and classical music, and dedicated some of his works to those themes.
His sculptures can be seen near other London stations: King’s Cross St Pancras, Kew Gardens, High Street Kensington, Pimlico and Royal Victoria. The 1995 bronze sculpture Newton, after William Blake 1995 looms in the piazza of the British Library. The Athena sculpture in the foyer of the John McIntosh Arts Centre is accompanied by a series of his prints at the London Oratory School, a Roman Catholic secondary school. Pop met the pop godfather on the cover of Paul McCartney’s album Red Rose Speedway.
Whitechapel has assembled a spell-binding and forceful array of the artist’s post-War bronzes and aluminium sculptures, maze-like screen-prints, collages, bold textiles and fashion designs in the five-decade retrospective which continues until May 14 2017. More than 250 works from public and private collections are arranged chronologically ion this, the first international touring exhibition of Eduardo Paolozzi since 1975. It will be re-installed, in Berlin in spring 2018.
There is much even for Paolozzi fans to marvel at, for he never stopped experimenting and confronting artistic convention from the 1950s when he was part of the Geometry of Fear school of sculptural art, with Elizabeth Frink, Bernard Meadows, and Reg Butler. He swung with the Swinging Sixties and was cool enough for Cool Britannia in the 1990s.
Perhaps because of this eclecticism, Paolozzi’s output rarely looks old fashioned, and there is much in it for artists today to admire. There is a contemporary vibe about most of the better-known and rarely exhibited drawings, maquettes and robot-like sculptures here.
Eduardo Paolozzi had a precarious youth. He was the eldest son of Italian immigrants and when in June 1940 Italy declared war on Britain, he was like others from Italian families interned.
While he was detained at Saughton prison, Edinburgh, his father, grandfather and uncle were among the 446 Italians drowned when the Arandora Star, a ship taking them to Canada was sunk by a German U-boat. He studied art in Edinburgh, at Saint Martins and at the Slade School in Oxford, coming to London when he was conscripted for the army and stationed in Slough. He used the opportunity to visit every museum and art gallery he could.
Many of the earlier works on show at Whitechapel point to the influence of the style popularised by Pablo Picasso before the war, but Paolozzi was ever restless. At design school he became a tutor and friend to restaurateur and designer Sir Terence Conran. In 1949, the two opened a workshop in the East End of London to make furniture. When Conran founded the Design Museum in London, he commissioned from Paolozzi the sculpture Head of Invention to stand outside it.
With another friend, photographer and typographer Nigel Henderson, Paolozzi founded Hammer Prints in 1954 for home furnishings, wallpaper, fabrics and ceramics. The deliciously patterned cocktail dress designed for Horrockses Fashions a year earlier is on proud display.
Later, Paolozzi “put on an engineer’s hat” to work with an aluminium company in Ipswich. A 162 cm high sculpture in aluminium from 1963-6 is teasingly called Diana as an Engine which comprises brightly coloured parts of machinery and has references to classical mythology.
With his sculpture, he embraces the flaws and limits of representation. He consistently reinvents himself and the style in which he works, says Daniel Herrmann, who is Eisler curator and head of curatorial studies at Whitechapel. He casts and recasts, then recasts the recast. [One is frustratingly aware that on the doorstep of the Whitechapel, the City as financial district is constantly being cast and recast in bloated construction projects].
Another stand-out piece is the 4 m wide Whitworth Tapestry (1967) in wool, linen and Terylene, displayed next to print portfolios demonstrating Paolozzi’s novel use of pattern, colour and everyday culture across different media.
He was a visiting professor in Berkeley, California, when he became critical of the Vietnam War and was influenced by his friendship with the novelist JG Ballard (1930-2009) to become interested in the idea of violence and how it is represented.
Disillusioned with pop art as an aesthetic which he felt to be taken over by commercial interests, his reaction is seen in a 1971 screen-print called Pop Art Redefined – Lots of Pictures, Lots of Fun.
In Berlin in 1974, Paolozzi made screen-prints Inspired by the music of Charles Ives, including Aeschylus and Socrates, and other composers.
In 1985 Paolozzi was invited to mix his works with selected items from the ethnographic collections of the Museum of Mankind. He made among other contributions a large plaster dog for the exhibition which was called Lost Magic Kingdoms. This is described by the Whitechapel as one of the earliest interventions by a contemporary artist into a public museum collection.
The new exhibition is presented in four sections and concludes by exploring Paolozzi’s work in the late 1980s to 90s with sculptures that demonstrated renewed interest in figuration. He was knighted in 1989 following his appointment as Her Majesty’s Sculptor in Ordinary for Scotland.
Daniel Herrmann said: “Eduardo Paolozzi was one of the most prolific, innovative and surprising artists from Britain. Never one to be told what to do, Paolozzi broke all conventions of art and consistently reinvented himself and his work. His voracious appetite for experimental forms, processes and ideas makes Paolozzi’s work so fascinating to contemporary artists today.”
Justine Simons, deputy mayor of London for culture and creative Industries added “Paolozzi is one of our giants and this show at the Whitechapel Gallery is a long overdue retrospective. Most Londoners know his iconic landmark mosaic on the walls of Tottenham Court Road underground, now restored in the new station. But in fact his work spans sculpture, record sleeves, collages, print, textile and fashion design.”
Eduardo Paolozzi, a retrospective, is at the Whitechapel Gallery until May 14 2017. www.whitechapelgallery.org