Eduardo Paolozzi: Living in a materialist world

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The Scottish artist found fame as a Pop Art pioneer, but it is his colourful collages, poking fun at post-war consumer society, which catch the eye of Adrian Hamilton at a revealing show in Chichester

If Eduardo Paolozzi is remembered as a founding figure of Pop Art, it is not how he wanted to go down in art history. Nor should it be. If anything, he was, as a current exhibition at Pallant House in Chichester shows, what he said of himself: a Surrealist, playing games, mixing images and delving into the subconscious in an effort to create an art of the time for the time.

The exhibition concentrates on his collages as the thread which runs through his work. It’s a revealing route picked by the curator, Simon Martin. Throughout his career, Paolozzi, the son of an immigrant ice-cream vendor in Scotland, liked to mix his media and his imagery, picking scraps of newspaper and magazine for his artwork and bits and pieces of  machinery and metal for his sculpture. His work was enormously varied, covering everything from pottery, tapestries, paintings and sculpture. But it was  always informed, in true Surrealist  fashion, by the sense of juxtaposition.

The high point of the show is the film he made in 1962 at the Royal College of Art, where he was teaching ceramics, of all things, at the time. Lasting 12 minutes and consisting of a series of still images taken from newspapers and animated in single frames, he used the film to illustrate his lectures on the “Translation of Experience” at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste in Hamburg. Played at length it is enchanting. Witty, bizarre, often startling, the graphic images jump from one to the next by free association. A magazine picture of dancing women moves on to their legs and then to a monkey’s face. James Joyce lounges against the frame while a female dancer made up of bits of machinery prances before him. Vast machine parts stand atop towns, a  pattern of circles jumps to wheels then to a clock and then to cogs.

Paolozzi described it as his homage to Surrealism. But in its way it represented much of what moved him, the fascination with unmediated thought, the delight in the products of a  consumer society alongside the fear of a mechanised world of destruction he saw in the nuclear stand-off and then in America’s war in Vietnam, the constant desire to express an image of the modern world in its contradictions. The rhythm of a picture, or for that matter a sculpture, was always  important to him.

Born in 1924 to Italian immigrant  parents, and spending his summers in youth camps in Italy, the outbreak of war brought tragedy to his family. The male members, including the 16-year-old Eduardo, were interned and his father, grandfather and uncle all drowned when the ship taking them to Canada was torpedoed by a German U-boat. Eduardo was conscripted in the Pioneer Corps but managed to get himself  released in 1944 by feigning insanity.

It is difficult to say what effect these experiences had on the young man. Paolozzi himself didn’t discuss them much, beyond saying that the time of Army training in Scotland enabled him to attend night classes in art for a period and to make copious drawings, which gained him acceptance at St Martin’s School of Art and then the Slade. A sense of dislocation and a lifetime opposition to war were one result. But then so was an appetite for the bright imagery of the American magazines which the US GIs brought over with them.

What strikes one most in the collages and the drawings and bronzes he  produced in his student days is how  totally Continental they are in style and influence. Even before he went to Paris from 1947 to 1949 – where he met Giacometti, Brancusi, Arp, Braque and others – you can see what excited him was the Modernism of Europe and  especially France. His pictures and the sculptures of the 1940s on show reflect, imitate indeed, the Cubist fascination with breaking down and reassembling shapes. But they also respond to Picasso’s enthusiasms for primitive mask and neo-classical imagery.

“I still find that French approach,” he recalled later, collaging his words as he did his pictures, “the need, the passion, to consider and handle things at the same time quite endearing – and very necessary for me. And it also justifies the reason to I had to leave London in the 1940s and go to France – just to show that I was not such an oddball. And I have lived by that ever since, the concern with different materials, disparate ideas – and to me that is the excitement; it becomes almost a description of the creative act – to juggle with these things.”

Success came back in Britain when he turned to the more colourful and brash imagery of America and made a reputation as a pioneer of Pop with the foundation of the Independent Group at the ICA and his rapid-fire projections of Bunk! collages taken from American adverts. Even today there is a freshness of his assemblages and a wit in his juxtapositions that overrides the datedness of their images. Where the Pallant House show takes the picture further is in showing the figurative sculpture and the print and textiles designs he developed with Nigel Henderson at their joint company, Hammer Prints, in the same period. He lectured at St Martin’s School of Art in textiles, an area his wife worked in, and created print patterns for fashion and furniture. A delightfully young Fifties cocktail dress – designed by John Tullis in a range chosen by the Queen for her post-Coronation Commonwealth tour in 1953 – uses a pattern taken from his rich and  abstract collages of the time and works wonderfully well on the pleated skirt.

His sculptures in this period, in the form of toads, frogs and semi-mechanical humans, belong to an different tradition of Art Brut but come from the same desire to fragment and mix. Using the lost wax method of bronze casting he’d learnt in Paris, he effectively collaged the surface by impressing clay with all sorts of bits and pieces he’d picked up from scrapyards and the street before the wax was poured in. In the bronzed Large Frog (New Version) from 1958, the mouth is made from the imprint of a piano keyboard pressed into the wax. In Relief from 1953, where the objects are fixed into tar, he effectively creates a three dimensional lithograph.

The spirit of experiment never left Paolozzi. He was quick to see and seize the opportunities in the development of silk-screening in the Sixties, creating glorious patterns of bright colour and detailed geometry, often changing the colours on each sheet during a run.  Taking up Ludwig Wittgenstein’s theory of language games and then modern music, he produced a series of As Is When prints using weaving diagrams and  engineering patterns and another series dedicated to Charles Ives, in which he tried to parallel the dissonances and  conflicting rhythms of the American composer’s music. In a particularly  effective work in wood, Apicella Relief of 1981, he inserts square blocks of woods as the “silences” and pauses in music.

Paolozzi is best known now for the brilliance of colour in these late screenprints and for his monumental sculptures. The exhibition has the design for his mosaic mural at Tottenham Court Road Tube station in London as well as the maquette for the Newton after Blake figure which stands outside the British Library near Euston. They are magnificent. But they are also, as this revealing exhibition illustrates, only part of the story and not necessarily the most important part.

He was much more than a Pop  artist. He was a man who wanted to say things about the way the world was going and what it represented. Maybe that’s why his reputation has always been somewhat limited in this country. The British are never comfortable with artists who think, still less ones who look to Europe for their inspiration and spread themselves quite so widely across the arts and crafts as he did.

Go to Chichester if you want to learn better.

Eduardo Paolozzi: Collaging Culture, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester (01243 774557) to 13 October

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