From the archive: The iconography of Allen Jones RA

Published 28 October 2014

Revisit this exploration of the meaning of Jones’s works, ahead of his first major retrospective in Burlington Gardens.

  • From the Summer 2002 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    It is hard not to be seduced by the glamour and the glitz of Allen Jones’s brilliant tableaux; it is easy to be amazed at his dazzling invention and the visual ingenuity with which he stage directs his familiar cast of impeccably sexy girls, energetically inter-twined lovers, louche pianists, sharp-suited dancers and flash magicians. The installation in the Summer Exhibition once more demonstrates Jones’s apparently effortless ability to entertain at the highest level and at the same time to disconcert, provoke contradictory and complicated thoughts and feelings. Two recent paintings and two new statuesque sculptures achieve, as ever, that extraordinary intensity of realisation – the quality Kenneth Tynan called “high definition performance” – in which virtuosity becomes high art. Jones’s subject matter is, of course, itself reflexively concerned with presentation and performance: medium and message comment on each other.

  • Allen Jones RA, Refrigerator

    Allen Jones RA, Refrigerator, 2002.

    Mixed media. 188 x 84 x 37 cm. LONDON, Private Collection. Photo: Royal Academy of Arts, London. © Allen Jones.

  • Jones’s absolute mastery of a particular graphic manner perfectly serves his creative purposes. He made it utterly his own, though it was adapted and developed, with inimitable ironic panache, from an anonymous and ubiquitous style common to the glamour magazines and fantasy advertising of an age before he himself came to maturity. Its linear exactitude, flawlessly modulated colour and streamlined exaggeration of the female figure, always self-consciously fanciful and distancing in effect, derived from the demotic classicism of art deco: A lineage of which Jones, an artist of the most sophisticated visual intelligence and historical awareness, was keenly aware. By the 1960s it had already become effectively tireless, providing the artist with a set of ready-made essentialising signs capable of infinitely diverse settings and configurations. Ideologically inspired criticism of his early work, especially of his ironic-iconic furniture sculptures, completely missed the point.

    Jones has always worked in series, taking a theme and creating virtuosic variations, and in this as in other respects his imagination works like that of a particular kind of composer or choreographer. The essence of the variation is that freedom of manoeuvre is conferred by constraints; the artist works within the bounds of formal limitation and with a set of given motifs: the dance is determined by the structure of the music. (Improvisation, on the other hand, can break out of the given form and go in any direction.) Jones is temperamentally responsive to the discipline of the variation; his jazz is Ellingtonian, celebratory, and stylishly controlled.

  • Allen Jones RA, The Dance Academy

    Allen Jones RA, The Dance Academy, 2002.

    Oil on canvas. 273 x 152 cm.

  • Being thus classical in temper rather than romantic, he relishes all the more the surprise that comes of the unexpected irrational event, the sudden intoxication that is induced by the dance. In Rumba the erotic spirit of the dancer-muse enters and overwhelms the controlling pianist-artist; The Dance Academy, effectively a diptych, opposes the still attitude of the three Graces, waiting in Apollonian light, to the Dionysiac rapture of the night-time spot-lit dancers on the floor (Jones knows his Nietzsche.). The new furniture-sculpture figures (as seen in Refrigerator) in their studied poise and perfect finish, recall their classical stylistic provenance in the artistic call-to-order of the early 1920s: behind the fetching vulgarities of art deco lamp-stands and vases were the staged polish of Tamara de Lempicka’s portraits, the graceful idealisations of Maillol. Like the rest of Jones’s cast, the coolly-indifferent girl with the ice-cold heart and the untouchable luminous goddess have complex histories and provide ambiguous comforts.

    Allen Jones RA is at the Royal Academy, Burlington Gardens from 13 November - 25 January 2015.
    Mel Gooding is an art critic and author.

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