Pop Art in Europe

EURO POP

American art history has tended to assume that something called “Pop Art” existed in Europe and has introduced a select group of European artists as examples. However, only London wholeheartedly embraced American popular culture, while other major cities were attempting to reconnect with their pre-war artistic roots. Another significant distinction between American and European Pop was the relevant time periods. American Pop Art may have debuted in the 1960s, but it was the early sixties; and thus, American Pop is really an art of the fifties. American Pop artists were responding to the mass culture of their youth and of the advertising created by middle -ged men, also with the fifties mind set. In contrast, European Pop came from the second half of the 1960s and was much closer to the legendary Sixties or what everyone thinks of when one says “The Sixties.” Pop in London is a good example of the generational split in European Pop that simply did not occur in New York, where Minimal Art routed Pop Art by 1965. That was when in Europe, Pop Art was just beginning.

London

Although American art historians tended to give less space to British Pop, London was where Pop Art was introduced. “Pop” evolved out of private group at the Institute of Contemporary Art, where an organization, the Independent Group, casually convened from 1952 to 55. The artists included Allen Jones, Peter Blake, R. J. Kitaj, Eduardo Paolozzi, David Hockney, Richard Hamilton, the architect, Reyner Banham and the art critic, Lawrence Alloway who coined the term “Pop Art.” In 1952 a group of artists from the London Institute of Contemporary Art formed Independent Group, which included critic Lawrence Alloway and artists Richard Hamilton (Just What is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?), Peter Blake (Everly Wall) and Edouard Paolozzi (It’s a Psychological Fact Pleasure Helps Your Disposition) and the architects, Alison and Peter Smithson and Reyner Banham.

All of the Independent Group participated in a 1956 group exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, This is Tomorrow, featuring what they called a “New Eden.” The new Paradise was post-war America with its abundant consumer culture where all things seemed to be possible, from space travel to readily available sex. The exhibition starred Robbie the Robot from the film The Forbidden Planet as “Adam” and Marilyn Monroe from the film The Seven Year Itch as “Eve” and the unlikely couple could apparently live without shame or fig leaves in this Pop Paradise.

The early London Pop artists were a diverse group. Only Eduardo Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton dealt directly with American advertising cut from American magazines circulating in London. Alan Jones specialized in misogynistic furniture made from female mannequins wearing bits and pieces of bondage costumes while serving as places upon which to sit or rest one’s feet. Peter Blake was London’s Ray Johnson, specializing in collages of American movie stars and pop stars, such as the Everly Brothers. These collages had a nostalgic sensitivity alien to American Pop. David Hockney was briefly aligned with the British Pop movement, but, like Reyner Banham, he ultimately found his true home in Los Angeles where he painted the hedonistic life among beautiful young men, living in modernist homes flanked by palm trees overlooking palm trees.

By the 1960s, London changed from the London that gave rise to a passive reactive British Pop to a London of the “Youth Quake.” England had recovered from the worst deprivations of the War and by the sixties, and London was “swinging.” What is interesting about this decade is that it was not America that was creating the popular culture; England suddenly surged to the fore as a cultural creator for a new generation. These art forms were not connected to the fine arts but came directly out of popular culture itself. In other words, rather than appropriating popular culture and somehow transforming “low” culture to “high” art, Swinging London created the pop “look” for the Baby Boomers, just then coming of age. One of the few major fine artists to achieve prominence was Bridget Riley whose Op Art paintings were quickly subsumed into the burgeoning fashion industry. Unlike the culture of middle-aged white men huddled in smoke filled rooms in New York advertising agencies, this popular art came from the same young people who were both creating and consuming the products.

The new art makers broke class barriers and propelled lower class heroes, such as Michael Caine, to stardom. These newcomers, of many ethnicities and classes, were drawn to London from the hinterlands of Great Britain, such as Paul McCartney from Liverpool, making this new movement a sub-culture, a youth culture that subverted and undermined the adult culture of the establishment. The artists were designers, like Mary Quant, creator of the Mod Look for women, musical groups like the Beatles and Pink Floyd, photographers like David Bailey, movie directors such as Richard Lester, fashion models like Twiggy, Jean Shrimpton, and Penelope Tree, movie stars like Julie Christie and Alan Bates and the cult BBC series, Doctor Who. America, swamped in Beatle-mania, had lost the lead in popular culture.

Paris

One of the more obscure and interesting members of British Pop was Ralph Rumney who was hardly ever in England. Rumney was like the Zelig of the 1960s in Europe: he married Peggy Guggenheim’s daughter, Pegeen who later committed suicide. Guggenheim was convinced her son-in-law had either aided in the death or had murdered her daughter. Rather than being associated with the London group of Independent artists, Rumney was part of Situationist International, a French movement, his entire life. As a founding member, he gamely carried on even when he was expelled from the group by its leader, Guy Debord, because, distracted by his wife’s deteriorating condition, Rumney turned in his assigned report on the psychogeography of Venice two days late. After his wife’s tragic death, Rumney hid from persistent journalists in a clinic run by Felix Guattari (who would write several books with Giles Deleuze) and eventually remarried Debord’s ex-wife. Rumney was a conceptual artist, avant la lettre, and envisioned creating an interactive environment for the viewer to determine how art impacted the audience.

Rumney’s concern with the interaction of images and the spectator was shared by his fellow founders of Situationist International. Combining with the Lettrists (founded in 1953) in 1957, SI can be best understood as a group that picked up the surviving elements of Dada, Surrealism and Marxism after a long wartime interruption. Jorn who had been a founding member of CoBrA, an early post-war movement which issued a 1946 Manifesto extolling the creative potential of the masses. When CoBrA was dissolved in 1951, Jorn moved on to SI. Despite the rather retardataire aspects of their thought, SI was impactful on the May 1968 uprisings in Nanterre and Paris. As the apparent leader, Debord summarily expelled not just Rumney but also Asger Jorn and most of the original members drifted way over the next ten years.

The Parisian artists of the Lettrist had used the term, Détournement, to describe their actions which were intended to turn manufactured goods and experiences against the system. In the Native American spirit of throwing one’s worldly goods away, these artists published a journal, Potlatch. They wandered about Paris, in “drifts,” rather like Andé Breton searching for the Marvelous. Situationist International was probably more important as proto-Conceptual neo-Marxist thinkers and did not fit well within the idea of Pop artists, such as Minno Ortella, Raymond Hains or Jacques de la Villeglé in France. Although these artists also dealt with everyday life, they were interested in popular culture and mass media as sources for fine art and used décollage (de-collage or tearing away) or “anonymous lacerations” of advertisements that had been defaced by vandals. These “found images” became works of art.

Where SI and the more artistically inclined French artists come together is the belief in investigating the intersection of art and life, a tenet of Neo-Dada in New York. Aggravated by the threat of capitalism to artistic integrity, SI sought to intervene in public process of “consuming” the “spectacle” of daily life. Like the Frankfurt School, which was in the process of regrouping in Frankfurt, the SI artists updated Marxist thought to take into account the impact of post-war consumerism upon daily life. The Spectacle operated somewhat like bread and circuses in the Roman Empire, as a distraction from the fact that life had become suffused with artificially engendered and enhanced pseudo-meaning through mass media.

The pubic consciousness or mode of thinking had been reshaped thanks to the insistent Spectacle of capitalism. The seat of society was no longer production through active but the passive consumption of images. Spectacle is nothing more than the visual reification of Capital itself. There was no way out of this overpowering situation but to intervene though endless divertissement and a refusal to cooperate with the system. In the spirit of the Arcades of Walter Benjamin, Debord created maps of the psychogeometry of Paris or the mind-set and psychological “aura” of a specific place. In 1967 Debord published his Society of the Spectacle in which he laid out the conditions of “spectacle” and its role in daily life.

1. In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation. 2. The images detached from every aspect of life merge into a common stream in which the unity of that life can no longer be recovered. Fragmented views of reality regroup themselves into a new unity as a separate pseudoworld that can only be looked at. The specialization of images of the world evolves into a world of autonomized images where even the deceivers are deceived. The spectacle is a concrete inversion of life, an autonomous movement of the nonliving. 3. The spectacle presents itself simultaneously as society itself, as a part of society, and as a means of unification. As a part of society, it is the focal point of all vision and all consciousness. But due to the very fact that this sector is separate, it is in reality the domain of delusion and false consciousness: the unification it achieves is nothing but an official language of universal separation. 4. The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images. 5. The spectacle cannot be understood as a mere visual excess produced by mass-media technologies. It is a worldview that has actually been materialized, a view of a world that has become objective.

The individual is reconstructed by the capitalist system into a consciousness of consumption. One did not work for fulfillment through labor, one worked only to consume. SI understood that it was their role to raise the numbed and beguiled consciousness of the masses. In their desire to intervene, the actions of the members of the group were somewhat reminiscent of defamiliarization or the “estrangement” activities of Berthold Brecht, and for a brief time, during the glory days of May, SI reached the zenith of its power and influence. But by 1972, the members went their separate ways, but one can discern traces of their thought on French philosophers critical of contemporary life, such as Jean Baudrillard.

Dusseldorf

Europe in the 1960s was in a state of rebuilding, and each capital city had its own concerns and each art center reacted in its own fashion towards the post-war world. Austerity Britain dreamed of un-rationed abundance; Paris returned to a past before its years of Nazi Occupation; but Germany, a defeated nation had a more complex response to American occupation. Germany had no option but to wipe its disgraced slate clean and move forward to an unwritten future. Dusseldorf became the leading site for post-war “Pop” art,with the famous Academy at the center. Among its most prominent leaders of an art that could, with a certain stretch of the imagination be defined as “Pop,” were refugees from East Germany, Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter.

Like the artists in Paris, Polke and Richter’s early purchase on American Pop Art was the old Dada interaction of art and life or of art as life/life as art. Situationist International, like Joseph Beuys, a powerful presence at the Academy, conceived of art and poetry as being the providence of the masses rather than of an elite group of talented individuals. Polke and Richter were, early in their careers, close associates and came together to mount an infamous 1963 exhibition in the Berges furniture store in Dusseldorf, Capitalist Realism. The term “Capitalist Realism” was an ironic play on “Socialist Realism,” a phrase often heard in the Soviet precincts of Germany. By the time of the exhibition, the city of Berlin had been divided by the Wall for two years and the former residents of the East, Polke and Richter, were safely esconsed within the monetary arms of capitalism.

For West Germany, capitalism, an economic system that was supposedly apolitical, was a safe place to invest time and energy after the fall of the Third Reich. Thanks to the American Marshall Plan, the nation recovered swiftly and, notoriously, plunged into a society that manufactured and purchased consumer goods and led the good life. Capitalism and consumerism had been good to West Germany’s recovery after the War. Teaming with Konrad Fischer (Konrad Lueg), Polke and Richter titled the exhibition “Life with Pop—A Demonstration for Capitalist Realism,” but the German version of Pop was, like other manifestations of “pop” culture in Germany have less to do with American popular culture and more to do with local social and economic conditions.

Sigmar Polke looked, not to American advertising, but to German means of mass reproduction with his series of paintings, the Rasterbilder series. In the 1996 book, Sigmar Polke, Back to Postmodernity, Joseph E. McHugh explained the artist’s visual source for these paintings: a printing technique, called “rastering,” screens of dots which created a cohesive image with tones out of the Ben-Day dots. Rather than precisely reproduce the neat dots like Roy Litchtenstein, Polke used the dots as an abstract device to distort his images. Art historian Margritt Rowell described Polke’s art as “droll and humorous” and his works were often of food, from his 1965 painting of donuts to his infamous series on Potato Heads. From the very beginning, Polke was witty and iroic, unlike his more serious colleague, Richter, and his paintings are often very amusing, such as Carl Andre in Delft of 1968.

In his essay on Polke, McHugh pointed out that the artists of Capitalist Realism (not a movement but more of an artistic statement) insisted that “…Pop Art is not an American innovation and we do not regard it as an import…” In “Connecting the Dots: Sigmar Polke’s Rasterbilder in Their Socio-political Context,” the author stressed the importance of locale on the work of these West German artists. Both Richter and Polke were quite aware of the role that mass media was playing in constructing a post-war German identity and McHugh made the interesting point that unlike Warhol who quickly began to elevate his images of media stars—Marilyn, Liz, Jackie, Elvis, et.al—Polke simply flattened out any implied hierarchy in his images and apparently “found” them seemingly at random.

Gerhard Richter’s painting techniques during the late sixties were less based upon mass media reproductive technology than Polke’s, for his paintings were lush and often painterly. However, like other Pop artists, Richter used pre-existing imagery, culled from magazines and newspapers of the day. But, unlike Polke and more like Warhol, Richter was selective in his choices and had a taste for high drama. Collecting these found images in his Atlas, his source book of materials, the artist painted some fifty cityscapes of modern cities, all shown from an aerial perspective. In a German context, these black and white paintings of cities look as if they are waiting for the bombs to fall. In his other works, the artist used the visual look of slick detail characteristic of photography and blurred the image by pulling his brush over the wet paint. This look would become his “signature” style, seen in his paintings of fighters and bombers of the Cold War.

The exhibition on Capitalist Realism showed Richter’s most obvious homage to American Pop, his painting of Bridget Bardot’s mouth, entitled Mouth. The artist was ambivalent about the rather hard edged painting, first disavowing it as too “Pop” and then later embracing it as “a very good document” of his early career. Richter also dealt occasionally with American culture, especially its sensational or tragic elements. Eight Student Nurses is somewhat reminiscent of Warhol’s Thirteen Wanted Men, although Richter shows the victims, not the perpetrator, of a 1966 mass murder in Chicago. The painter also captured Jacqueline Kennedy on the occasion of the assassination of the President, but his Woman with Umbrella of 1964 is rarely seen by the casual viewer as a painting of the grieving widow.

Like Richter’s 1965 painting of his Uncle Rudi, the “Nazi in the family,” the blurring technique has a distorting effect akin to Polke’s disorderly dots. These willful distortions are very different from the sharp message-based insistence of American Pop. The artists have a different way of saying “look at me.” The viewer immediately become suspicious of this new form of “realism,” and the painters’ techniques invited the viewer to probe beneath the surface effects—a metaphor for the simulacra of popular culture—to determine why, at this point in time, after a long and tragic war, capitalism and consumerism, driven by mass media, was creating a new culture and to ask what this new society would be. As Arthur Danto, who explained the difference between American and German Pop, put in in his article “History in a Blur,”

German artists of the same period, by contrast, seem to have treated the historical situation of art in Germany as their primary preoccupation. How to be an artist in post-war Germany was part of the burden of being a German artist in that time, and this had no analogy in artistic self-consciousness anywhere else in the West. Especially those in the first generation after Nazism had to find ways of reconnecting with Modernism while still remaining German. And beyond that they had to deal with the harsh and total political divisions of the cold war, which cut their country in two like a mortal wound.

And here is where Pop Art divides, between the winners of the war–America and England—and the losers of the war–occupied France and defeated Germany; one group wholeheartedly embraced the victory of western capitalism and other group viewed this alien popular culture with a more critical eye.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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