UA1-WA:P3-p4-Research Point: Pop Art and still life

Still life
“A painting of inanimate objects” (Lucie-Smith, 2003, p. 205).
“A representation of such inanimate objects as flowers, fruit, dead animals or household articles” (Honour and Fleming, 2009, p. 948)

What are the criteria for “still life”? Lucie-Smith gives two – a painting, and inanimate objects. Honour and Fleming is a little more open with “representation” (perhaps allowing in the George Baldessin sculpture I showed recently – see 31-Jan-2014) and the brief list of example objects is suggestive of scale and possibly a certain domestic ordinariness. At least a certain degree of representation is required, not pure abstraction. Neither definition mentions the artist’s purpose.

When researching the iconography of still life (see 11-Jan-2014) I found vanitas paintings, reflecting on the brevity of life, and pronkstilleven paintings, a celebration of plenty and the exotic. Both forms were a display of the technical skill of the artist and of the wealth and possibly piety of the prosperous citizens of a great trading nation.

Cézanne’s still life (see 30-Jan-2014) explored the nature of painting, emphasising the canvas surface and distorting forms and space. I’m currently working on an annotation of a Cubist still life, which goes further as suggested by Braque’s statement “The subject is not the object; it is the new unity, the lyricism which stems completely from the means employed” (Braque, [n.d.]). Here the ‘inanimate object’ is just a pretext for the painting.

Aspects of Pop Art

  • Appropriation. For example Roy Lichtenstein followed “a sophisticated process of image selection, reinterpretation and reissue” (Babington, 2012, p. 17)
  • Slick
  • A reaction against abstract expressionism and the individual gestures/marks of the heroic artist.
  • Reintroduction of the figurative
  • Often mechanically produced in multiples
  • Collision or confrontation of high and low art, the ordinary/popular and avant garde.
  • Often uses collage or screen printing

Another list, from Richard Hamilton in 1957:

  • Popular (designed for a mass audience)
  • Transient (short term solution)
  • Expendable (easily forgotten)
  • Low cost
  • Mass produced
  • Young (aimed at youth)
  • Witty
  • Sexy
  • Gimmicky
  • Glamrous
  • Big business

Pop Art responded to the mass consumerism and popular culture of its time.

Probably the most widely known Pop Art work that could be regarded as still life are Andy Warhol’s images of soup cans (for example see http://nga.gov.au/warhol/details/126133.cfm). I saw two of these in Canberra last year – images of ordinary household items reproduced using commercial techniques, but at a monumental scale and using repetition to generate impact and force. The rows of soup on supermarket shelves, a quick something for supper, become a Statement, a reflection of and a commentary on modern life. The choice of subject was suggested by a gallery owner, Muriel Latow, and the work gained Warhol the “instant notoriety” he craved (Kinsman, 2003). A very humble inanimate object has been represented on a very large scale (historically not used for still life) using techniques that deliberately downplay the touch of the artist’s hand. It ticks all the boxes to be regarded as a still life, while at the same time challenging the traditional qualities of an artwork.

For this Research Point I have chosen to focus on the work of Roy Lichtenstein, as I had the opportunity to many of his works at the Roy Lichtenstein
Pop Remix
exhibition at the NGA (see http://nga.gov.au/Lichtenstein/).

Still life with windmill (1974) (http://artsearch.nga.gov.au/Detail.cfm?IRN=113451) is from the Six still lifes series (another from the series can be seen at the Tate – https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/lichtenstein-still-life-with-portrait-from-six-still-lifes-p77053). This clearly references traditional “old master” paintings. Fruit and jugs are arranged on a table top, a local view can be seen through a door or window – not so different to the work I studied by Laurens Craen (see 13-July-2014). However surface planes are flattened, detail is removed, colours simplified and strong. There are 99 other copies in the edition. It is slightly larger than the Craen work. While clearly a modern work there is no doubt it is a still life.

Kitchen range (1961-62) http://nga.gov.au/international/catalogue/Detail.cfm?IRN=115724 also shows food items arranged in a domestic setting – in this instance a kitchen stove. It is painted, oil on canvas – traditional. The palette has been reduced to an acid yellow and a violet blue on white. The stove and its contents are placed on the canvas with no further elaboration. Lichtenstein said “In these objects … there is an anti-Cubist composition. You pick an object and put it on a blank ground. I was interested in non-Cubist composition. The idea is contrary to the major direction of art since the early Renaissance which has more and more symbolised the integration of ‘figure’ and ‘ground'” (Lichtenstein, 1967). This work can be seen as a representation of inanimate household articles and the artist’s intentions remain within the canon of western art. I have no difficulty categorising this as a still life.

I am more ambivalent about works in the Mirror series – for example Mirror #6 (1972) http://artsearch.nga.gov.au/Detail.cfm?IRN=102771. It is a representation of an inanimate household object. Babington suggests that in this series Lichtenstein was “exploring in full the conceptual and formal concerns posed by compositions that meld abstraction and representation” (Babington, p. 45). Lichtenstein said of these works “There is no really convincing way to portray a mirror, because a mirror simply reflects what’s in front of it… I try to represent reflections of various things and to make a kind of geometrical painting, one that could possibly be thought of as a mirror, and to continue the idea of a painting as an object” (Lichtenstein, 1995). The subject here is not really the object, just as it wasn’t for Braque. However the concerns of the artist remain within the canon even as his techniques continue to test the boundaries. If there is an element of doubt here, it is answered in Before the Mirror (1975) http://artsearch.nga.gov.au/Detail.cfm?IRN=70412. Here traditional elements of a still life, a lemon and a glass, are reintroduced. I suggest the series is confirmed as comprising still life works.

Crak! (1963-64) http://artsearch.nga.gov.au/Detail.cfm?IRN=10456 shows a female resistance fighter firing her gun. What has this to do with still life? It is an appropriation of an illustration in a comic book, something that would have been a household item in the 1960s. It’s a representation, a lithograph, of a drawing. In that sense the object is not a portrait of a woman firing a gun, it’s a DC Comics illustration. Lichtenstein said “… it’s like a Western version of Oriental writing or scrolls … the Bayeux tapestry or something” (Lichtenstein, [n.d.]). Although one could argue that the image is a representation of an inanimate object I think this would be a distortion of the artist’s intention and not justifiable.

I believe many of Lichtenstein’s works can be regarded as within the still life genre. How helpful or misleading such labels are is beyond the scope of this post.

References

Babington, J. (2012) Roy Lichtenstein: Pop remix. Canberra: NGA Publishing National Gallery of Australia.

Braque, G. ([n.d.]) Cited in Honour, H. and Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art (revised 7th edition). London: Laurence King, p. 785.

Hamilton, R. (1957) ‘Letter to Peter and Alison Smithson’, Cited in Babington, J. (2012) Roy Lichtenstein: Pop remix. Canberra: NGA Publishing National Gallery of Australia, p. 16.

Honour, H. and Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art (revised 7th edition). London: Laurence King.

Kinsman, J. (2003) Curator’s essay: afterimage: Screenprints of Andy Warhol. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia. [online] Available from http://nga.gov.au/warhol/Kinsman.cfm (Accessed 7-Feb-2014)

Lichtenstein, R. ([n.d.]) Cited in Waldman, D. (1971) Roy Lichtenstein. London: Thames and Hudson, p. 28, Cited in Babington, J. (2012) Roy Lichtenstein: Pop remix. Canberra: NGA Publishing National Gallery of Australia, p. 29.

Lichtenstein, R. (1967) in John Coplans, ‘Talking with Roy Lichtenstein’, Artforum, vol. 5, no. 9, May 1967, pp.34-9, p.34, Cited in National Gallery of Australia Catalogue ([n.d.]) Roy LICHTENSTEIN: Kitchen range [Kitchen stove] 1961-62 [online] Available at http://nga.gov.au/international/catalogue/Detail.cfm?IRN=115724
(Accessed 7-Feb-2014)

Lichtenstein, R. (1995) ‘A review of my work since 1961 – a slide presentation’ lecture delivered 11 November 1995, Cited in Babington, J. (2012) Roy Lichtenstein: Pop remix. Canberra: NGA Publishing National Gallery of Australia, p. 47.

Lucie-Smith, E. (2003) The Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Art Terms (New edition). London: Thames & Hudson.

UA1-WA:P3-p4-Research Point: Pop Art still life
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part three: Modern art and still life
Project four: Still life after 1900
Research Point: Pop Art still life

1 Response to “UA1-WA:P3-p4-Research Point: Pop Art and still life”



  1. 1 UWA-WA1:P3 Review | Fibres of Being Trackback on March 2, 2014 at 8:05 pm

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