Emerging in the mid 1950s in Britain and late 1950s in America, pop art reached its peak in the 1960s. It began as a revolt against the dominant approaches to art and culture and traditional views on what art should be. Young artists felt that what they were taught at art school and what they saw in museums did not have anything to do with their lives or the things they saw around them every day. Instead they turned to sources such as Hollywood movies, advertising, product packaging, pop music and comic books for their imagery.
In 1957 pop artist Richard Hamilton listed the ‘characteristics of pop art’ in a letter to his friends the architects Peter and Alison Smithson:
Pop Art is: Popular (designed for a mass audience), Transient (short-term solution), Expendable (easily forgotten), Low cost, Mass produced, Young (aimed at youth), Witty, Sexy, Gimmicky, Glamorous, Big business
Modernist critics were horrified by the pop artists’ use of such ‘low’ subject matter and by their apparently uncritical treatment of it. In fact pop both took art into new areas of subject matter and developed new ways of presenting it in art and can be seen as one of the first manifestations of postmodernism.
American pop vs. British pop
Although they were inspired by similar subject matter, British pop is often seen as distinctive from American pop.
Early pop art in Britain was fuelled by American popular culture viewed from a distance, while the American artists were inspired by what they saw and experienced living within that culture.
In the United States, pop style was a return to representational art (art that depicted the visual world in a recognisable way) and the use of hard edges and distinct forms after the painterly looseness of abstract expressionism. By using impersonal, mundane imagery, pop artists also wanted to move away from the emphasis on personal feelings and personal symbolism that characterised abstract expressionism.
In Britain, the movement was more academic in its approach. While employing irony and parody, it focused more on what American popular imagery represented, and its power in manipulating people’s lifestyles. The 1950s art group The Independent Group (IG), is regarded as the precursor to the British Pop art movement.
"Pop art is: Popular, transient, expendable, low-cost, mass-produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous, and Big Business."
Although the term Pop art is usually associated with the work of artists working in New York in the 1960s such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, the movement actually found its earliest voice in Britain a decade earlier. Still recovering from World War II, with a bankrupt population dependent on rations, the nation's artists looked west to the new consumerist paradise being advertised in the prospering United States. British Pop art rose out of a strong outsider's perspective as it looked both longingly and critically, yet with a healthy sense of irony, at the new visual imagery arising from this far off dream where everything from toasters to cars to beauty creams were placed on colorful pedestals in the glossy pages of magazines or touted on television in the hands of long legged beauty queens.
As early British Pop artists like Eduardo Paolozzi, Richard Hamilton and Peter Blake began to borrow heavily from this marketing language of post-War Americana, they initiated a significant movement away from the traditional parameters of what constituted art. This departure from tradition also extended to new techniques such as collage and commercial screen printing - breaking down previous orthodox distinctions between art and design, popular culture and high culture, and between mass production and individuality. The work also complemented, and often was intricately connected to, the energetic pop music scene, which originated around the same time in Britain marked by bands such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.
British Pop artists aimed to shake up a stale art tradition in which works were customarily related to mythological, biblical, or emotional themes. Pop art became their vehicle of expressing this hunger for change. Although much of their inspiration was founded in the Dadaist language of creating irrational combinations of random images to provoke a reaction from the establishment of the day, British Pop artists found their original fodder in the brash, fun, and bold world of contemporary culture. Their new work thrived with a youthful energy, and by infusing their topics with humor, new images began to topple the historical parameters of art by representing the current mood.
Although British Pop art makes extensive use of the American advertising that came out of the post-WWII consumer boom, it remains distinct from American Pop art. This is due to the fact that while American artists were primarily inspired by what they saw and experienced within their own culture, early Pop art in Britain was fueled by American popular culture viewed from a distance. Later, as the swinging London musical and fashion scenes began to rise, British artists began incorporating the culture of their own country into their artistic lexicon as well.
By utilizing innovative advertising and design industry methods such as screen printing and collage-style graphic layouts, artists were able to construct works reminiscent of ads, album covers, pages of popular magazines, posters, catalogs, and other marketing-related propaganda. By creating relatable works that tweaked resonance within the common man, British Pop art successfully pierced the veil between high and low art making it accessible to all.
By making art that was essentially about art, embedded with a strong adverse reaction to the introspection and elitism that had dominated Abstract Expressionism, British Pop artists reintroduced the image as a structural device. Subject and object became the same thing, instantly recognizable and un-laden with abstraction. This neutrality and literalness provided artists with an opportunity to explore the visual and physical qualities of the medium while asking the viewer to reevaluate preconceived notions about what constitutes art.
Most Important Art
British Pop Art Artworks in Focus:
I was a rich man's plaything (1947)
Artist: Eduardo Paolozzi
This collage, composed of a selection of images from American magazines given to Paolozzi by American ex-soldiers in Paris, was created as part of a series noted for prompting the beginnings of the Pop art movement. The work is credited for being the first to use American advertising toward creating a new visual language for a post-War world.
British Pop Art Overview Continues Below
Eduardo Paolozzi's Collages
In 1947, Eduardo Paolozzi started work on a series of collages, which borrowed cutout imagery from American magazines. He spent time in Paris in the late 1940s, where he got to know members of the Surrealist group such as Alberto Giacometti and Jean Arp. Much of his work from this era was inspired by Dadaist and Surrealist works, and these collages in particular were influenced by artists such as Max Ernst. Paolozzi gathered magazines from American soldiers, who were stationed there on training programs after the Second World War, and became fascinated by the bold, colorful, and sexualized visual language employed by advertising designers. Britain and France were still feeling the bitter economic after-effects of the War and the American advertisements provided a degree of fantasy escapism from Europe's impoverished reality. Paolozzi's 1947 work, I was a rich man's plaything, is the first artwork to employ the word "pop," which is depicted bursting out of a gun in a cartoon-like white cloud. These compilations of popular imagery became the foundation for the Pop art movement.
The Independent Group
Although Paolozzi started making his collages as early as 1947, it wasn't until 1952 that he began showing them to his peers. Paolozzi was a founding member of the Independent Group, a gathering of artists based in London, who would meet at the new Institute for Contemporary Arts. Other members included artist Richard Hamilton, artist and sociologist John McHale, architects Alison and Peter Smithson, and critics Lawrence Alloway and Reyner Banham.
Paolozzi's proto-pop collages were greeted with excitement, and the group began discussing the possibilities of using popular culture more extensively as a source for their work. References were soon extended beyond advertising into Hollywood movies, pop music, comic books, and industrial design as artists started to explore and expand the genre's boundaries.
The origin of the term "Pop art" has been much disputed. However, it is often attributed to Richard Hamilton, who wrote a definition of Pop art in a letter in 1957. He wrote "Pop art is: popular, transient, expendable, low-cost, mass-produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous, and Big Business."
This is Tomorrow - The Exhibition
In 1956, London's Whitechapel Gallery staged a seminal show called "This is Tomorrow," where artists, architects, and designers were invited to collaborate on a series of works. Exhibitors included the core Independent Group from the ICA, and some of the most important early works of Pop art were produced for the show. These included Richard Hamilton's seminal collage What is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing? - created in association with John McHale for the cover of the show's catalog. The piece used images cut from American magazines, compiled to reflect the interior of a contemporary home, complete with a modern Adam and Eve amidst the furnishings. Other important works in the show included Fun House, for which Hamilton collaborated with the architect John Voelcker. It was a fully immersive Pop experience, with larger-than-life images of cartoon robots and Marilyn Monroe, a large three-dimensional model of a Guinness bottle and pop music blaring from speakers.
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A New Generation
British pop artists, particularly Hamilton and others involved in the Independent Group, took an intellectual or even academic approach to what Pop art could achieve in its confrontation of popular culture and the orthodoxy of the art world. Following the acclaim of "This is Tomorrow," Richard Hamilton was offered a post teaching at London's Royal College of Art. There, he maintained a strong influence over his students including newcomers David Hockney and Peter Blake, who would become fundamental in furthering the movement. Both artists participated in the 1961 Young Contemporaries exhibition, alongside other young British Pop artists such as Allen Jones, Patrick Caulfield and R.B. Kitaj (an American-born artist who nonetheless contributed to the British Pop art scene). During this time other artists such as Joe Tilson, Gerald Laing, Jann Haworth and Pauline Boty were also forging their own voices within the British Pop art lexicon.
Concepts and Styles
Art & Culture: Combining Popular Imagery
The merging of Pop and popular culture was something particularly British, wrapped up in the inextricable dynamics of the vibrant art and music scenes of London in the swinging '60s. Borrowing from movies, magazines, and music was a key feature of Pop art, but artists and their works also entered the popular sphere themselves. One of the main facets of British Pop art, which established it as an insular movement was its close association with British popular music, which rose as an alternative to rock and roll. Focused on the singles chart, it burgeoned in the late 1950s and 1960s, with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones taking the world by storm.
Peter Blake's colorful collage approach culminated in the iconic cover he designed, along with his wife Jann Haworth, for the Beatles' album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Richard Hamilton was a member of the circle of notorious art dealer Robert Fraser, whose art gallery was a hub not only for many important exhibitions but also the infamous drug-fueled parties attended by pop stars such as Mick Jagger. Mick Jagger and Fraser were both (famously) arrested in 1968 and charged for drug possession, an event which Hamilton documented in his painting Swingeing London (1968-9). Hamilton also designed a Beatles album cover and heavily influenced Roxy Music-founder Bryan Ferry when he taught him in Newcastle. Thus, the British Pop movement was unusual, in that the world of the Pop artists and that of the popular culture they borrowed from interacted heavily and were sometimes indistinguishable from each other.
Use of American Adverts
The visual language of American advertising was hugely influential for early British Pop art. Paolozzi in particular made extensive use of adverts cut from American magazines that he got from US soldiers based in Paris after the end of the Second World War. Paolozzi described American advertising as a medium "where the event of selling tinned pears was transformed into multi-colored dreams, where sensuality and virility combined to form, in our view, an art form more subtle and fulfilling than the orthodox choice of either the Tate Gallery or the Royal Academy." British Pop artists were looking at American advertising imagery and its highly sexualized visual language both with a degree of envy and with an outsider's view of the alien.
Advertising would continue to inspire other British Pop artists. Richard Hamilton pulled images to construct intricate interior collages where commercial products and furnishings from popular catalogs sat side by side with models from magazines. Peter Blake's paintings often featured painted visuals copied from popular culture. David Hockney scoured architectural and lifestyle periodicals as inspiration for his modern indoor/outdoor environments. Gerald Laing appropriated media images of celebrities and notable people pulled from news sources, and Patrick Caulfield often painted products such as housewares into flat renditions much like they would appear in catalogs.
Use of Screen Prints
In the 1960s, British Pop artists such as Hamilton, Paolozzi and Blake began to explore the artistic possibilities of screen printing as a medium. Traditionally, screen printing had only been used as a commercial process, utilized particularly in the advertising world. Pop artists were naturally drawn to the medium because of its connotations with non-traditional art and with the commercial language of advertising.
Indeed, Paolozzi used screen printing for both "art" and "design" processes in his own practices, using it to create art images as well as in the textiles and wallpaper business he ran for ten years in the 1950s. He thus attempted to break down the traditional distinction between art and design, artist and designer. His work was furthered by Hamilton, Blake, Laing, and others, who made extensive use of screen printing as a means to create multiple versions of a work, and to question the taboos around making copies of one-of-a-kind art pieces. Screen printing was also famously taken up by Andy Warhol, whose experiments with the medium in the 1960s resulted in his iconic Marilyn Monroe works (along with prints of Elvis, Jackie Kennedy, and others), which have come to be emblematic of Pop art as a whole.
Interest in Interiors
Another regularly occurring trope in British Pop art is the interior environment. Richard Hamilton frequently depicts domestic rooms as part of his commentary on how advertising manipulated a person's sense of identity within their own home or personal space. Tongue-in-cheek nods to the ideal, cheery lifestyle motivated by a consumerist's impetus to buy and own all the right things was accentuated by works where rooms contained all the latest products and men and women were posed as model inhabitants of these perfect worlds. Hamilton's interest in interiors was also picked up by his student David Hockney, whose paintings of everyday life in California homes such as Beverly Hills Housewife (1966) were to take the British Pop aesthetic in a new direction. He also revisited the interior trope in the 1980s, when he made a series of paintings of Los Angeles interiors, using the bold colors of Pop but offering a skewed, nearly abstracted perspective.
Collaboration between artists and across disciplines was a key characteristic of British Pop art. The important "This is Tomorrow" exhibition at London's Whitechapel Gallery was a collaborative show where artists were invited to create a selection of works and installations. One of these was Fun House (1956), created by Richard Hamilton in collaboration with architect John Voelcker. The piece was designed as a full Pop art immersion, where a viewer could literally experience a house decorated with images from popular culture. Hamilton also later collaborated with American pop artists and the German artist Dieter Roth. Similarly, Eduardo Paolozzi frequently worked with his friend, the photographer Nigel Henderson, creating works of both art and design together. These collaborative acts of making were intended to undermine the traditional notion of the solitary artist and the artistic genius, suggesting that, as in popular culture and design, several people could work together to create an artwork.
Pop art from Britain soon began to influence work across the Atlantic in America. In the 1960s American art critic and historian Barbara Rose coined Neo-Dada as a new movement exemplified by its use of modern materials, popular imagery and absurdist contrast with a nod to Dadaist roots combined with a Pop philosophy. On the international Pop art stage, artists such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, and Claes Oldenburg soon outstripped British Pop artists in terms of fame with their colorful paintings and designs that injected glamor into the everyday and popular culture.American Pop Art Movement Page
While the tightly knit nature of the British Independent Group and its collaborative work started to splinter in the 1960s, artists such as David Hockney continued to evolve the aesthetic vocabulary of British Pop art providing a counterpart to the work of American peers entering the Pop lexicon. His bright, flat paintings of Britain and the US, such as A Bigger Splash (1967) began to expand the genre beyond its national borders.
The legacy of British pop artists can also be seen in some of the work inspired by popular culture that came to the fore in the 1980s, such as that by Jeff Koons. Koons' recent design for Lady Gaga's album ARTPOP could be seen as inspired by Hamilton and Blake's work for pop icons such as The Beatles. The influence of Pop can also be seen further afield, such as in the "superflat" movement made popular in Japan by artists such as Takashi Murakami, which makes extensive use of the imagery of advertising and popular culture.