King of Pop Art or Talentless Cartoonist? Lichtenstein at the Tate Modern

Whaam! 1963 by Roy Lichtenstein 1923-1997

Whaam!, 1963

Arguably one of this year’s most anticipated art exhibitions, Roy Lichtenstein A Retrospective at the Tate Modern is currently one of the hottest tickets in town.

After waiting what seemed like a year (which was in fact a mere week), I was lucky enough to finally see the exhibition yesterday evening. And it didn’t disappoint.

Famed for his enormous cartoon-copy paintings, Lichtenstein is, along with Andy Warhol, a King of Pop Art. By definition, his work is at once a response to consumerism and a piece of that very consumer culture itself. There is no denying Lichtenstein’s work is incredibly popular. His images are not only well known; they are iconic. They are a beacon of the post-modern age of mass production Lichtenstein aimed to portray.

As is the way with a retrospective, however, the exhibition lets us see the many other sides to Lichtenstein which the art world seems to forget. The few early works we see are not Pop Art at all- rather, they are sketchy, easily forgettable musings on Modernist masters like Kandinsky. As the exhibition later shows us, Lichtenstein revisits this kind of mimicking later in his career, producing copies of well-known works by Picasso, Matisse and Monet. All in his signature cartoon style, of course. In his own words, Lichtenstein translates well-known pieces of high art ‘into another high-art medium that pretends to be low art.’ Alastair Smart of The Daily Telegraph has criticised Lichtenstein as being a one-trick-pony. But, to me, the monotony of his works acts as a greater extension for the monotonous world of mass culture he was trying to converse with. And, quite frankly, Lichtenstein’s non-comicbook works are so dire that it was just as well he did stick to one style…

The layout of the exhibition was impeccable. I particularly enjoyed how the first room showcased Lichtenstein’s relatively little known brushstroke canvases. These paintings highlighted how Lichtenstein, and Warhol, used Pop Art as a means of moving away from the violent, emotionally charged brushwork of the Abstract Expressionists. Instead, the brushstrokes are made ironically deliberate, and are put forward as a cartoon; a parody of Jackson Pollock’s angry works.

Brushstroke 1965 by Roy Lichtenstein 1923-1997

Brushstroke, 1965

In the large central space, Lichtenstein’s iconic works were shown to their full dramatic potential. It is difficult to understand the impact the sheer size of Lichtenstein’s works has on you until you see them in person, but we were successfully bombarded by his signature weeping women and fighting men. I can’t imagine Lichtenstein wanting anything less.

What captured me most, however, was the selection of Lictenstein’s ‘Late Nudes’. Interestingly, Lichtenstein did not use life models for his nude paintings. Instead, he used comic clippings and archive images of female characters, then undressed them in his mind to paint them. Though seemingly perverse, the nudes are in fact quite bland, contourless and oddly sexy yet sexless. As the Sheen Wagstaff explains, ‘the noble nude has been rendered as erotic graphic pulp; the paintings propose her large schematic bland body as an object of desire, yet she experiences desire as well.’  Lichtenstein almost down-grades the classic genre of the nude, processing the female body like a commercial, consumer product.

Detail of Blue Nude

Blue Nude, 1995 (Detail)

Nudes%20with%20Beach%20BallNudes with Beach Ball, 1994

There seems to be something of a tension, a battle even, between the intimacy of the nude genre, and the distance of Lichtenstein’s cartoon form. Personally, I find something a little sinister in this; Lichtenstein objectifies and commercialises the nude, allowing it too to be consumed within Post Modern society. But, who are we to blame him for this? After all, artists throughout time have re-addressed the nude, and re-defined the academic prototpye for figure painting.

Above all, this is one of the best art exhibitions I have been to in a long, long time. It is a rare opportunity to see a retrospective of such a prolific figure of modern art. Expertly co-ordinated and hung, the paintings gel together, yet define themselves as different moments in Lichtensteins eclectic career. I highly recommended it. It’s open until May 27th.

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