Issue Number: 120
Richard Cork pops along to Christie’s to hear about their new gallery’s very British opening show
Although Pop Art is now seen as dominated by American titans such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, Britain also played a ground-breaking role in the movement. But British Pop Art has tended to be neglected in exhibitions since its inclusion in the Royal Academy’s major survey in 1991, which is why a new show exclusively on the subject is so welcome.
Launching Christie’s new Mayfair gallery, and curated in association with Waddington Custot Galleries, the exhibition reveals how Pop Art began in Britain as early as the late 1940s, with Eduardo Paolozzi RA’s irrepressible collages, and then developed during the 1950s in the work of Richard Hamilton and Peter Blake.
Video: Watch an interview with Allen Jones RA
Hamilton, whose iconic image Swingeing London is in the show, described pop culture as, ‘witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous, big business’. But British Pop Art was never as commercial as its New York equivalent, even if Peter Blake focused on subjects like Hollywood actress Kim Novak in the late 1950s.
By 1961, emerging London-based artists organised their own Pop breakthrough in the ‘Young Contemporaries’ exhibition at the Royal Society of British Artists. This was the moment when British Pop asserted itself, and the rebellious Allen Jones, now a Royal Academician, curated the exhibition along with Peter Phillips, his fellow-student at the Royal College of Art. ‘At first,’ Jones recalls wryly, ‘it looked like a cross between the Royal Academy Summer Show and a sketch club exhibition. But we decided it wasn’t right, and opted to rehang the entire show. It really looked different, with works by Derek Boshier, Phillips, Hockney and myself – and we gave Ron Kitaj a complete wall. It was a new broom.’
Jones, who at that time still lived at home in Ealing and hung paintings in his bedroom, was exhilarated by all the media attention. The exhibition was part of an exciting new era for London, with the emergence of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Jones produced his energetic ‘Bus’ paintings and images such as Bikini Baby the following year. He now defines British Pop Art as having ‘full-hued colour, clearly defined imagery and urban subject matter – one’s actual environment, with traffic, cinema and posters in the street. I was one of the softer or gentler practitioners, but I realised one should have no fear. It was sink or swim.’