London Art: Lichtenstein Retrospective & Becoming Picasso

I'm not going to lie, being a History of Art student has a lot of perks. For one, we probably have the least hours of any degree subject - technically, this year I have a five-day weekend (if only it were true in practice). Secondly, looking at art is a lot more visually appealing than looking at pie charts, dead bodies, or algebra. Thirdly, we get to go on field trips, and, as Cartman would put it, pretty much "do what we wawwnt". On Wednesday morning, a bleary-eyed group of 20-somethings boarded a minibus headed to London, buoyed up by the prospect of free travel and decent pubs at the other end. After five and a half hours of wishing we'd just splashed out and taken the train - if only for the extra legroom - we arrived in London at the Tate Modern. After a quick headcount, we were left to our own devices - which meant a quick look round the galleries and then on to the pub. Rather than see the permanent exhibits, I decided that I might as well take a tour of the new Roy Lichtenstein Retrospective exhibition that the Tate is hosting. So, hopefully without too much pretension, here's what I thought of it...

One of the most influential artists of the 20th century, Lichtenstein is one whose work is instantly recognisable, yet a lot of people don't know his name. His career started in the early 1960's, and, along with contemporaries such as Andy Warhol and Sir Peter Blake, gave rise to the Pop Art Movement with his preoccupation with comic strips, advertising, and mass culture imagery. Fun, often in the form of tongue-in-cheek parodies, is a huge part of Lichtenstein's work. The first room of the exhibition contains his 'Brushstrokes' series; a gentle jab at the abstract expressionism of Jackson Pollock, who had dominated the previous decade. While Pollock emphasised how his strokes were random and a result of chance, Lichtenstein makes a brushstroke 'a grand gesture'; outlining it in harsh black and making it the central focus of his paintings. 

Roy Lichtenstein, Brushstroke, 1965

Much like Courbet in the 19th century, who took scenes of 'low life' peasants and blew them up to gigantic, 'in-your-face' size to challenge the Parisian bourgeoisie, Lichtenstein took 'low-brow', mass-produced media, and made it look like art. His most famous series is entitled 'War and Romance', and features distressed looking women and fighter pilots depicted in comic-strip form, using dots for colour and shading - as was the process for printing actual comic books. Focusing on preconceived gender roles of the 'damsel in distress' and the male hero, he tentatively highlights the problems of sexism in the mass media by making it so glaringly obvious. The series made Lichtenstein an overnight sensation, and provoked as much media interest in the 1960's as Tracey Emin did with her unmade bed in the 90's, debating either Lichtenstein's ingenuity or impertinence. In the exhibition, the series is displayed in one room, against a stark white background - intensifying the comic strip element. 

Roy Lichtenstein, Hopeless, 1963
Roy Lichtenstein, Masterpiece, 1962

Roy Lichtenstein, Whaam!, 1963

Around the same time, Lichtenstein also produced a lesser-known black and white series, which focused not on comics but rather on mundane everyday household items (like Warhol and his soup cans). The most successful of these is the huge Compositions I (1964), where he blows up the size of a high-school exercise book to dwarf the viewers. In this way, the painting becomes the object, rather than just a depiction of it. 
Roy Lichtenstein, Compositions I, 1964

In the latter half of the 60's, Lichtenstein experimented with landscape. Personally, I don't think they're as successful - presumably the conclusion he also came to, as he never did anything like them again. Using only coloured dots and lines, he attempted to render down sunsets and sunrises to their bare elements - but they lack character and any rooting in recognisable or relatable popular imagery, and are, on the whole, pretty forgettable. Around this time, he also branched out into sculpture, taking inspiration from the then-outdated style of New York Art Deco for oversized, shiny brass sculptures. Although a complete departure from his usual style and oeuvre, they are quite amazing - especially since he attempted them as a complete amateur. 

As I mentioned before, a big part of understanding Lichtenstein is the amusing way he deals with the subject of authorship and appropriation in art. Whilst it is slightly more acceptable to 'make art' out of comic strips or advertisements, when Lichtenstein takes on Picasso, things start to get interesting. Inspired by the artists of the first half of the 20th century, Lichtenstein created a series of paintings that put his own spin on the iconic works of Picasso, Matisse and Mondrian, among others. In my opinion, he's most successful at Picasso - their styles seem to work and compliment each other, creating a really interesting dialogue. This is shown in a 1974 Portrait Triptych, where one of Lichtenstein's glossy damsels morphs into a proto-cubistic Picasso 'femme'. The irony here is that Picasso is famously quoted to have said: "Good artists copy, great artists steal." You can see the inspiration and adaptation process if you put together the original Delacroix Femmes d'Alger, Picasso's Les Femmes d'Algers and Lichtenstein's interpretation, Femme d'Alger...

Eugene Delacroix, Femmes d'Alger, 1834
Pablo Picasso, Les Femmes d'Algers, 1955
Roy Lichtenstein, Femme d'Alger, 1963
In this way, Lichtenstein is aligning himself with the greats of Art History. 

Another artist that Lichtenstein 'took on' was Matisse. In the early 70's, Lichtenstein embarked on a series of 'Artist's Studios', taking heavy inspiration from Matisse's series of a similar subject matter. In Matisse's 1911 work, The Pink Studio, the artist depicts his studio - complete with his own works upon the walls. Lichtenstein copies this idea in his work Artist Studio 'Look Mickey' in 1973, where we see one of his earlier Pop Art works hanging with prominence on the wall. I also believe he's drawing somewhat on the work of the 'father of Pop Art' - Richard Hamilton - and his 1959 collage, Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing? See what you think...

Henri Matisse, The Pink Studio, 1911
Roy Lichtenstein, Artist's Studio 'Look Mickey', 1973
Richard Hamilton, Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing?, 1959
For Lichtenstein, the 1980's seem to have been a bit of a blip. Focusing on lines and perspective, he created a number of works that are, in my humble opinion, quite emotionless and devoid of imagination. Not to fear, though, because you can skip that room and move straight onto the 90's - where he's back to his old self. His focus once again is on gender roles in the media, this time through the age-old medium of nudes. Apparently in a retrospective mood himself, Lichtenstein revisits the comic-strip females that ignited his career as a successful artist - this time stripping them naked and contorting them into positions of ecstasy. In this way, they become less objects of lust and voyeurism and more autonomous, free-thinking individuals. That having been said, there is still a strong focus on media-perceived female beauty, and you can see how the aesthetics of the 90's Barbie doll had permeated ideas of feminine perfection.

Roy Lichtenstein, Two Nudes, 1995

At this point I was summoned to the pub, so I quickly looked at the last room of the exhibition - Japanese-inspired dot-paintings - before heading to Covent Garden to catch up with some friends. After a rushed drink, we said our goodbyes and headed to the Courtauld Institute in Somerset House to assemble for our private, after-hours tour of the new Picasso exhibition currently on show: 'Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901'. 

Spread over a manageable two rooms, the exhibition focuses on the year that was a huge turning point for Picasso - both personally and artistically. In this year, he moved from his native Spain to Paris, and started signing his works simply, Picasso. In this way, he 'became' Picasso, as, before then, he had used both his parents surnames: Ruiz and Picasso (as is the tradition in Spain). It signifies a real sense of personal identification and reinvention for the artist, shown in the amazing assembly of works the Courtauld has managed to beg, steal and borrow for the exhibition. It marks the departure point for the one of the periods he is best known for: his blue period - and the paintings in this series witness the development of themes and ideas that would come to permeate and define his later works. I've included my favourite works from the exhibition here, one of which - the Girl with a Dove - is quite personal, as I grew up with a print of it in my childhood bathroom! If you're around the Strand between now and the end of May, I would definitely recommend you pop into Somerset House and see the paintings for yourself. In the risk of sounding like a hippy, they have an incredibly powerful 'aura' about them, and are charged with emotional energy. Even if you don't buy in for any of that, simply go because you'll probably never see all these works in the same room again - certainly not in London, anyway.

Pablo Picasso, The Blue Room (The Tub), 1901

Pablo Picasso, Girl with a Dove, 1901

Pablo Picasso, The Death of Casagemas, 1901
Painted after the dramatic suicide of his close Spanish friend,
the poet Carlos Casagemas, which had a huge impact on
Picasso - both personally and artistically.

Pablo Picasso, Self Portrait, 1901

Belle x

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