Pallant House Gallery’s major spring exhibition explores Pop Art in Britain and the dynamic ways artists responded to rapid social change during the 1950s and 1960s
The rise of mass media, consumerism, identity and prevalent political issues – you might be forgiven for assuming artworks exploring these themes were made in the last decade. But the pieces in question were born 50 years ago from the era of pop art, which in the 1950s, began examining the radical cultural shift of the post war world in fresh and exciting ways.
Amidst the minimalistic sleek white, walls and wooden floorboards of Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, the 168 vibrant artworks in the major new exhibition Pop! Art in a Changing Britain, includes pieces by Richard Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi and Peter Blake, all of them pioneers of the Pop Art movement,
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They are part of the Gallery’s extensive collection of Pop Art paintings, sculptures and prints created in the two decades that followed the Second World War many of them acquired by the architect Colin St John Wilson and his wife and fellow architect, M.J. Long,
And as co-curator Claudia Milburn explains, this is the first time the collection has come together for a major exhibition at the Gallery. “We’ve explored exhibitions on a number of the artists that are included,” she says, “but to actually have the pop collection in its entirety – we haven’t been able to do before now as we haven’t had the space.
“It’s very much a celebration of the collection,” she adds, “reflecting back 50 years on, since that period; it’s looking at the expansive nature of it, and looking at it being a very personal collection.”
This personal aspect emerges in many of the artworks, notably R.B Kitaj’s screenprint, Plays for Total Stakes (1968) which depicts English Painter David Hockney, and his boyfriend of the time, American artist Peter Schlesinger, while they were in California.
Kitaj described the painting as being emblematic of his friendships at the Royal College of Art in the 1960s and of his sense of inclusion in a world of art, poetry and music. “I finally felt I belonged,” he said. “I met kindred spirits and the first homosexuals who weren’t afraid to admit what they were”.
Similarly Anthony Donaldson’s sculpture, Hollywood (1968), a vibrant yellow art-deco sculpture resembling a trophy with a pineapple emerging from its base, seems like a personal expression of the artist’s move to America in 1966, and his wide-eyed impression of a new landscape in which art deco cinemas and hotels stood as architectural symbols of glamour.
Whilst both pieces seem to express a view of American culture through a very British lens, here they feature in thematic sections exploring the journey of Pop Art; Kitaj’s piece resides under ‘Youth and Liberation’, and Donaldson’s sits within the ‘Pop and Progression’.
Other themes include ‘Man and Machine’, ‘Celebrity and Pleasure’, ‘Colour and Production’, ‘Series and Repetition’ and ‘Politics and Technology’. Yet one theme is constant – the way the ensuing post-war age of austerity gave way to the new art which even now seems almost like a new resistance movement, youthful in energy and spirit.
Yet in terms of style and theme, there was no single defined form or approach to pop art, something co-curator Louise Weller was keen to get across in her curation.
“I think it came a little bit out of looking at the work and the ideas that are raised in these works,” she says. “As well as trying to get a balance between the social and political context were are also thinking about art in itself – such as how you make and receive it and the relationship between pieces.
“It’s both things, it’s not just the historical stuff, it’s about getting that balance throughout and the work sort of lent itself to those ideas.”
Milburn adds, “there’s many issues going on in them but it’s really to look at how this art enabled those messages to come across. These are ccessible themes and we hope the audience can appreciate all those elements that were going on in Pop Art”
Both curators recognise how we can learn from British Pop Art’s social critiques and the desire to break with the past.
“We get a lot of school groups who come in and I often talk to them about the notion of celebrity, public image and processed imagery, and that was happening in these artworks,” says Weller.
“The Beatles and Elvis – you knew these people but not their real person, you knew their public persona and that is still relevant today – how people project not only themselves but how they think they know celebrities but don’t.”
Milburn agrees, “I think it enables you to reflect on today,” she says, “by looking at how artists responded 50 years ago to that proliferation of imagery, to how in today’s world we respond to that material. It raises a number of questions that hopefully visitors will react to.”
There are many levels on which these forever youthful artworks will engage and invite modern audiences to reflect on – not least their enduring relevance to the modern world, but to simply immerse yourself in this collection of British Pop Art in its entirety is one of the most appealing.
POP! Art in a Changing Britain runs at Pallant House Gallery until May 7 2018.
Pallant House Gallery
Chichester, West Sussex
Pallant House Gallery is a unique combination of a Grade 1 listed Queen Anne townhouse and an award-winning contemporary extension. It is based in the heart of Chichester and holds one of the best collections of Modern British art in the country. There is an extensive temporary exhibition programme including…