Lichtenstein: A Retrospective, Tate Modern

I went to two different secondary schools over the course of my GCSE, one single sex private, and one single sex comprehensive. I started off at the private, and I can still remember the rigidity of the curriculum, and the previously dormant streak of petulant rebellion it bought out in me. It came out most thoroughly in my art lessons. I was basically at war with my art teacher, Mrs. Anderson, who didn’t seem to like my fascination with colour. I remember including violent neons in minimalist studies, reimagining Leger style abstract expressionism in lurid clashes, and trying to make linocuts of Otto Dix style anguished portraits so I could print them in bright red and green on the financial times ‘because it was pink’. And she hated all of it. I remember the final showdown between me and her was when I cut all the most blazingly bright coloured pieces out of a series of prints I’d made and jumbled them together in a kind of fluorescent cubist nightmare, and she sent me to the cupboard with a candle and a mirror to go do self portraits and ‘work on my light and shade’. I know right? I stopped going to art lessons, preferring to smoke on the hockey field and idly create big bold oil pastel portraits in my sketchbook instead.

When I moved schools I couldn’t have got a better reaction to what Mrs. Anderson had called my ‘wastes of paint’. The cynic in me assumes now, that if I’d spent the whole time pseudo-classically training myself instead of getting really hyped up on all the different colours you can create I’d have still got a warm reaction, because hell, I was doing work in what was considered a ‘non-core’ subject, but no, my new Art teacher handed me a huge pile of books on Pop Art and colour theory and sent me off on my merry way to wreak havoc with the acrylics. Which is where I first discovered Roy Lichtenstein. And to be honest, at the time, his work got a kind of ‘meh’ reaction from teenage me. When you’re young you crave cultural objects that resonate with feeling, so I was listening to Hole and looking at Edvard Munch’s The Scream and wondering how to get exactly that kind of violence of emotion into my pastel strokes. Which is a hilariously teenage thing to do in the controlled school environment. but I think at that age if it doesn’t strike a chord with your hurt, and you’re the sort of introverted ball of angst I was, then you’re not gonna be into it. I thought Lichtenstein’s work was kinda pretty, and that’s about it. My comprehension of the ways objects could mean something was limited.

I like to dress referentially, so to go see Lichtenstein it had to be Benday dots and red lipstick.

I like to dress referentially, so to go see Lichtenstein it had to be Benday dots and red lipstick.

Fast forward roughly ten years and you have a Kirsty who has been through the system of higher education, getting herself social skills and a sound knowledge of modernism, postmodernism, and whole load of other ‘isms’ on the way. You also have a girl trying to make the most of a big city and spend time on her own absorbing beautiful and interesting things rather than sitting around the house not doing an awful lot. it has taken me a long time to get to a point where I feel like nurturing myself in my own company is for the greater good, but I’m there now, so I took myself off to go and see the Lichtenstein retrospective at the Tate Modern on my day off last week.

There are times when having a different social schedule to the rest of the world has its perks, and being able to visit an art gallery on a quiet Monday and reflect on things in peace is one of them. I must have been the only person in there who wasn’t either a student or a lady-who-lunches style Tate member. It was quiet enough that I could dawdle and stop and stare to my heart’s content. Absolute bliss.

The retrospective surprised me in a lot of ways. There were a lot of Lichtenstein pieces I had never seen before, such as the Japanese landscapes, and all of his sculptures. I was particularly enamoured with the Art deco ones; so shiny and gold and functionless, with such devotion to the overwrought detail. Having not grown up with a lot of art deco architecture around me, I like the style, but I also liked Lichtenstein’s idea that it was a ‘designer’s design’, that there were a lot of superfluous lines and curves drawn in to unnecessarily demonstrate the technical skill. Hence the sculptures. Plus: so shiny and gold.

Modern sculpture with glass wave, 1967

Modern sculpture with glass wave, 1967

I mean, it was great to see the comic book style pictures up close and personal, but the collections I fell in love with surprised me. I was incredibly taken with some early pieces based on adverts involving impersonal, disembodied female hands, Lichtenstein seemingly suggesting that in adland women are just extensions of household objects:

Spray, 1962

Spray, 1962

I loved his nudes, and their cartoonization of sexuality in art. The idea that instead of a female body as an objet d’art, it’s shown as something more pulp and crass, but also kind of infantile, was fantastic. I love that he took normal scenes and just undressed the women, exposing (as it were) the everpresent sexualisation of women in his chosen medium. it was nice to look at pictures I’d not really taken seriously as a teenager and realize there are many layers of meaning:

Collage for Two Nudes, 1995

Collage for Two Nudes, 1995

And I loved all of his artists studio pieces, referencing earlier Matisse pieces. Such beautiful colours and clever references. In fact there was a whole huge room dedicated to Lichtenstein’s art about art, and being something of a philistine due to colour magpie tendencies, I was surprised at how many of the references I could get:

Artist's Studio "The Dance", 1974

Artist’s Studio “The Dance”, 1974

I was so bowled over by the use of colour, especially how much yellow there was. And by seeing all those Benday dots up close. I loved that some of the canvases, such as ‘Look, Mickey…’ had really evident pencil marks. I loved eavesdropping on a woman who was talking about how the pictures almost felt like they must have been more fun to do than to look at. Because art is about process as much as product.

A Brewdog and Tate collaboration I found in the giftshop. I think they should do beers for all exhibitions. I'd definitely buy them!

A Brewdog and Tate collaboration I found in the giftshop. I think they should do beers for all exhibitions. I’d definitely buy them!

And in the gift shop on the way out I found, of all things, beer! A collaboration with Brewdog that I pretty much had to buy. It’s like I was meant to go to the exhibition, no? I would definitely recommend this one for a look. They’re showing some of his film pieces in the tanks soon, too, so I may have to go back.

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