Pop Goes Paolozzi

As discussed in a previous post, intertextuality is a theory which is often used to describe the ways texts relate to and reference other distinct texts. Of course the theory of intertextuality would lend itself to art, as pieces are of art are simply organized pieces of separate texts. Perhaps no better era of modern art best exemplified the notions of hybridity and intertextuality than the pop art movement begun in the late 1950s.

The pop art movement can be simply described as a challenge to long held conventions of classical fine art; traditions kept sacrosanct for nearly a millennia. Pop is essential postmodernism, utilizing texts from mass culture, often incorporating found items, and subverting the materials original employment to make comment on the elitist nature of the art world, or of the culture at large. The use of materiality is most interesting in the critique so often rendered in such pieces, criticizing the commercial consumerist nature of Western culture by using throw-away items from said culture, everything from comic books to tin cans were used to make such commentary.

One of the most influential of the artists of this period was Scotsman Eduardo Paolozzi, and as the focus of this post, three of his more iconic collages will be discussed. Paolozzi was an earlier forerunner of the postmodern art movement, and a prominent surrealist who worked in a wide variety of mediums including screen printing, found object, ceramics, and perhaps best known for his intricate sculptures. Writes Toiani (2000), “Impressed by the Surrealists experimentation with ‘readymade metaphors’ using objet trouve or found objects, Paolozzi used images found in American magazines to create his collages” (p. 3). Paolozzi became well known as a founder of the Independent Group (IG) in 1952, whose members included such luminaries as artist Richard Hamilton, sculptor William Turnbull, photographer Nigel Henderson, architects Alison and Peter Smithson, and critic Lawrence Alloway. It was here where he first exhibited what can be argued a seminal piece of pop art canon, I was a Rich Man’s Plaything (1947).

Messages Image(1415682102)

“Eduardo Paolozzi presented to this assembly a chaotic collection of clippings and collages that he called Bunk!, which involved a number of theoretical proposals, among them that the hierarchy between high art and popular culture-industrial design” (Myers, 2000, p. 65).

I was a Rich Man’s Plaything was composed of images mostly from a number of magazines given to Paolozzi from American ex-servicemen. (Tate, 2012), and that the use of such “advertising images from American magazines was formative and fed into a general collaborative interest in such material” (Stonard, 2007, p. 609). Amongst the artists affiliated with the IG tear sheets of advertising images were readily available in homes and studios and frequently shared.

Myers (2000) writes that two conventions regarding the collage are incorrect “illustration in pulp magazines-was a false one” and “collection and curation were a species of art practice,” noting “the first two have been the governing assumptions of much art since, though they were clearly charged and polemic claims in the early 1950s” (p. 65). Instead he argues, it is “that erotics and irrationality inhabited even the most innocuous of mass-cultural representations” (p. 65) that merits further investigation.

“The collage traffics in a hokey, lowbrow polysemy-pop gun, poppa, popping cherries, soda-pop, not to mention popular. These words are made into a handful of caricatures in the collage: the bottle of Coca-Cola, the gun, the ‘rich man.’ This polysemy, nonsensical except in its repetition-pop, pop, pop-extends to a series of formal rhymes between red-brown circles: from the stained red badge of the Coca-Cola advertisement, to the Real Gold fruit juice insignia, to the bulging fetish cherry near the center of the collage, to the round curves of the woman’s posterior, breast, and thigh. Each hums with a fetishistic appeal, the appeal of the ‘idealized’ feminine form on the left, and the appeal of the constellation of commodities on the right” (Myers, 2000, p.70).

While some credit the imagery to Paolozzi’s fascination with “the glamour of American consumerism” (Tate, 2012), it should be argued that ultimately, Bunk! and its series of collages speak to viewer of Paolozzi’s understanding that his work not only found value and reflection of the current reality, but that it acted as a critique in a response to the very contemporary culture which created it. In a very literal sense, Paolozzi ensured that his art was understood as a product of his environment. To do so, Paolozzi stuck new ground in using the found objects of pop culture in collage. “The projection of a heterogeneity of messages generated from SF magazine covers, car ads, animated film clips, and military images appears to have had a bewildering impact. No one had taken mass media imagery that seriously before” (Robbins, 1990, p. 94).

Messages Image(1652606009)He also expressed a desire to exhibit these objet trouve as the artist and the viewer’s bodies, in other words, the body as commodity. No better example of this in Paolozzi’s oeuvre than Evadne in Green Dimension (1972) “explicitly stamped with ‘male’ power: its diagram of an erect phallus, superimposed with the curves of a glamour girl, graphically embodies the association between possession of goods and of women” (Spencer, 2012, p. 332). Paolozzi used the male body to criticize a mass media, dependent on “overt construction of gendered stereotypes in order to sell goods.” Spencer deftly dissects the Bunk! critique which presents the male subject – the American strong man Charles Atlas, his modesty preserved by a leopard-print loincloth – as defined in relation to objects offered up for literal and metaphoric consumption. The glistening slice of strawberry pie, the car and the glamour girl establish a set of coordinates for male identity, constituting an anthropological study of stereotypically masculine self-construction in capitalist society. At the same time, the image insinuates that the mass media can itself be navigated anthropologically, as a set of signs and symbols to be understood and arranged to achieve a specific cultural construct, predicated in this instance on the pursuit of social mobility and sexual conquest” (p. 332).

Ultimately, pop art owes its existence to this materiality, which fed the collective worldview of the IG who were “united in their conviction that multiple visual phenomena demanded the same degree of scrutiny awarded to ‘high’ art” (Spencer 2012, p. 316).


Myers, J. (2000). The future as fetish. October, 94, 63-88.

Livingstone, M., Pop Art: A Continuing History, New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1990

Paolozzi, E. (1947). I was a rich man’s plaything. Tate. Retrieved from http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/paolozzi-i-was-a-rich-mans-plaything-t01462

Paolozzi, E. (1972). Evadne in Green Dimension. Tate. Retrieved from http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/paolozzi-1-evadne-in-green-dimension-p02020

Robbins, D. (ed.) 1990, The Independent Group: Postwar Britain and the Aesthetics of Plenty, M.I.T Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Spencer, C. (2012).  The Independent Group’s ‘Anthropology of Ourselves’. Art history. ,  35 (2), p. 314-335.

Stonard, J. P. (2007). Pop in the Age of Boom: Richard Hamilton’s’ Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes so Different, so Appealing?’. The Burlington Magazine, 607-620.

Troiani, I. (2000). There’s nothing Wrong with being “Ordinary”: Beauty in the architectural campaigns of the Smithsons and Venturi, Scott Brown. In Habitus conference proceedings, Perth.