Paolozzi’s Silken World & Other Cities

Beth Brankowski is an MA student on the History of Art and Curating course at the University, where she also undertook her undergraduate degree in Art History. Currently completing her dissertation on the American artist and writer David Wojnarowicz, Beth is hoping to pursue a career in the arts sector after graduation.

Sarah McDermott Brown is an MA History of Art and Curating student at the University of Birmingham. She undertook a placement at the Research and Cultural Collections in which she  assisted and delivered a gallery tour for their exhibition, from which this essay has been adapted.

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As part of our History of Art and Curating placement with Research and Cultural Collections at the University of Birmingham, over the past nine weeks we have been working with Eduardo Paolozzi’s Moonstrips Empire News print series from 1967. This included assisting the RCC team with the initial condition checking and installation of the art works into the Rotunda space in the Aston Webb building, as well as researching Paolozzi and the collection. This also culminated in a gallery talk that we delivered on 12 March 2019, and this essay that will outline the findings of our research that we presented.

As part of our placement, we wanted to explore the art historical side of the works, and in this essay we will outline our research of the collection. We focused on the eight titled works from the series, including: Secrets of the Internal Combustion Engine, Donald Duck Meets Mondrian, and The Silken World of Michelangelo. These named prints are generally more well-known and offer a way in which the entire series could be explored more broadly.

Launch of the Eduardo Paolozzi exhibition Moonstrips Empire News, February 2019

Paolozzi the Artist

Paolozzi was a prolific sculptor, printmaker, collector and teacher whose work explores a lifelong fascination with popular culture, science and technology. Moonstrips Empire News is a particularly good example of this due to its subject matter. His use of the medium of printmaking started in 1962 after he met Chris and Rose Prater, who were commercial printers (Miles, 1977). They worked with other leading British artists of this period to produce prints, including Richard Hamilton, Joe Tilson and Richard Smith, causing their workshop, Kelpra Studios, to receive international acclaim in the 1960s and 1970s. Throughout his artistic career, Paolozzi had been interested in the work of Wittgenstein and the evolution of forms of language, including both pictorial and verbal manifestations, and this is a key theme in Moonstrips Empire News. He had seen how screen-printing could be used as a method to emphasise the ways in which commercial operations have dramatically transformed modern life ‘socially, materially and morally’ (Miles, 1977).

Paolozzi originally intended for Moonstrips Empire News to be a 500-page screen print book, created from his collection of twentieth century ephemera which would form a statement on modern man and his predicament in the modern world (Collins, 2014). However, the book did not materialise, and the project was redirected into two large boxed sets of screen prints, Moonstrips Empire News, and General Dynamic Fun, which the University of Birmingham also has a series of. Both sets of prints were printed and produced by Editions Alecto, an influential print publisher which produced and sold contemporary artists’ prints in Britain during the 1960s and 1970s. They pioneered the idea that painters and sculptors should have the freedom to realise and produce their art works and ideas in multiple forms. Graphics became a serious and marketable medium for artists such as Paolozzi to work in because it was easy to distribute to a wider audience. This links to why Paolozzi turned away from the book format for his prints because of, he explained, ‘its lack of freedom for the viewer’ (1967, quoted in Collins, 2014). The boxed sets would allow the viewer to take out the individual leaves and form their own ordering and re-ordering of the series, effectively allowing a huge number of reformulations.

Paolozzi, as with many of his works, did not provide a reasoning behind the title of the collection. In the vein of Surrealist art and the penchant of its artists for choosing unusual titles for their works, it could be suggested that Moonstrips Empire News is merely random, chosen with an unknown significance for Paolozzi. However, the foreword to Moonstrips Empire News, written by Christopher Finch, could provide some context for this. Finch stated that: ‘California scientists have proposed image-banks orbiting the Earth. Moonstrips is a terrestrial prototype’ (Finch, 1967). Perhaps, according to Finch, Moonstrips Empire News could be perceived as a ‘terrestrial prototype’ of this type of technology. If the title is read in this way, it could point to the series as exemplifying the proliferation of images on Earth and Paolozzi’s role in placing these images into a collective series.

Talking with other guests at the Paolozzi exhibition

Paolozzi’s Influences

Pop Art was an important movement that emerged during the 1950s led by figures such as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol in the US and Richard Hamilton in the UK. Imagery from advertising, comic books, fashion, entertainment and everyday modern items were used, and challenged the traditions of fine art through the use of popular culture. In Moonstrips Empire News, it is evident how Paolozzi’s work is often associated with the Pop Art movement because of his use of diverse imagery. Paolozzi was a founding member of the Independent Group founded in 1952, which consisted of painters, sculptors, architects, writers and critics that met at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London to discuss change in the modern world in a positive light, and this included mass culture (Collins, 2014). The Independent Group are often seen as precursors to Pop Art or referred to as proto-pop. While Moonstrips Empire News and Paolozzi’s later work may appear to be aesthetically linked to Pop Art, Paolozzi’s ideas and concepts are much more rooted in his work with the Independent Group.

While much of the imagery Paolozzi used in his work depicted modern life and popular culture, it was not simply due to admiration as many of the works were ironic or critiques of reality (Pearson, 1999). When talking about his work, Paolozzi said that despite the closeness of his work to Pop Art he did not want to be viewed as a Pop artist who accepted the modern life as it was (Pearson, 1999). Instead, he wanted to be seen as an observer of something with deeper European roots (Pearson, 1999). By 1967, the year that this series was produced, New York replaced Paris as the capital of the art market and there was an increasing commercial interest in British pop art (Brittain, 2009). However, despite retaining an interest in the latest technology and art developing in New York, Paolozzi expressed disillusionment with America and elements of popular culture (Brittain, 2009).

The ‘European roots’ Paolozzi referred to was the influence of Surrealism, a movement that he often referenced as a large inspiration for his work (Pearson, 1999). Surrealism was a cultural movement centred in Paris that developed in the 1920s out of the Dada movement, and led by figures such as Andre Breton who wrote the first Surrealist manifesto in 1924. Surrealist artists and theorists of the movement believed that Western civilisation relied too much on reason rather than attempting to embrace life’s diversity, as they noted other cultures did (Pearson, 1999). They believed that a deeper reality existed which united all the phenomena of the world and that dreams reveal glimpses of this (Pearson, 1999). Surrealist artists attempted to depict this absolute reality by using dream imagery, automatic drawing, and by juxtaposing objects in unlikely combinations, for example through the method of collage that used pre-existing images found in newspapers, magazines, books and catalogues (Pearson, 1999). This method links very much to the way that Paolozzi composed his images.

While studying at the Slade School of Art, Paolozzi met Nigel Henderson. Henderson was interested in Dada and Surrealist artists including Marcel Duchamp, and this artist also deeply influenced Paolozzi. In addition to this, he began to look at Surrealist periodicals, and in 1947 moved to Paris. Paolozzi met Giacometti and many other artists there, and viewed large collections of Dada and Surrealist art (Pearson, 1999). He also collected pre-war surrealist publications which provided scholarly attention to popular culture (Pearson, 1999). Subjects that were previously considered derivative were now being treated as equal to high art, an idea also apparent in Paolozzi’s work. The Surrealist legacy that Paolozzi was able to experience in Paris is regarded as the main catalyst to his artistic production post 1950s. It is evident in this series and in his work after his time in Paris that he embraced the idea that there is no longer a hierarchy of subject matter, style or type of image, meaning that the artist had almost unlimited freedom to combine and interpret the world as he wished.

The titled works from Moonstrips Empire News exemplify Paolozzi’s influence from the Surrealists. The juxtaposition of various different images has the effect of creating unusual compositions in his prints; for example in Secrets of the Internal Combustion Engine, the title references engines and the middle row appears to be different angles of machinery. However within the same work he also uses imagery from entertainment, splitting the work into three sections with the popular culture surrounding images of machinery. He repeats the format of four sections for each row, creating a visual link between aspects of popular entertainment such as advertising and cartoons with machinery. It is possible that by juxtaposing these images and manipulating the colours and the format in which they appear, Paolozzi is highlighting the idea of mass culture and mass production that was increasingly present in the 1960s. By combining the human body and mechanical imagery it could also link to the notion of man as machine and the relationship between man and machine, in particular questioning what the driving force is in the age of mass production. While this bright, colourful and dynamic image appears to be visually associated with the Pop Art movement, Paolozzi’s Surrealist influence could imply that the work is a criticism of elements of the modern world. The use of the word ‘secrets’ in the title could be seen to emphasise this, suggesting that he is revealing something, potentially the impact and hidden drivers of mass production and popular culture on human experience and understanding of the modern world.

In terms of his influences for the Moonstrips Empire News series, Paolozzi was offering a work of art in the same random fashion as that found in Marcel Duchamp’s The Green Box (1934). The Green Box consisted of 93 notes, sketches and documents which Duchamp produced throughout the creation of The Large Glass, an art work made of two large plates of glass mounted in a sturdy, freestanding frame. On the glass, Duchamp assembled images of imaginary objects using a variety of media including foil, dust and wire.

Duchamp intended for The Large Glass to be accompanied by a book, in order to prevent purely visual responses to it. This took the form of The Green Box, which we can compare to Paolozzi’s Moonstrips Empire News and how it was housed in a magenta Perspex box. Paolozzi had also used the free association which Duchamp used in producing The Green Box but created a much wider collection of images and use of sources, which ranged from classical literature to advertising slogans (Miles, 1977). By allowing the viewer to interact with the creative process and collectively engage with these objects, both Paolozzi and Duchamp ensured that the art work did not end at the point of completion or publication, ushering in new, conceptual approaches, whereby the ideas in and of themselves become a work of art.

Delivering our talk related to our research on the Paolozzi exhibition

Moonstrips Empire News      

Paolozzi intended for the series to play on themes of free association and lateral thinking, the themes and ways of viewing the series are directly linked to and influenced by the unusual presentation of the prints. Paolozzi himself stated that the series would give: ‘the spectator endless opportunity to create new sequences of order. In book form, this order would of course be controlled by the artist’ (Collins, 2014). The fact that the prints are loose and form an open portfolio means that the viewer can perform the role of editor and explore how they wish to place the series together.

In Moonstrips Empire News, Paolozzi combines his view of the modern world into a series of dynamic, bright and fun screen prints. In Donald Duck Meets Mondrian, where he has taken multiple pre-existing images and collaged them to create the composition, there is a juxtaposition between the Disney cartoon of Donald Duck and the modern artwork by Mondrian, creating an interesting image that could be viewed as a comment on the modern world. Paolozzi takes an image that is usually seen in entertainment and merchandise and one that would usually be seen hanging on the wall of an art gallery, and as the title suggests allows them to ‘meet’, creating a contrast between popular culture and fine art. He appears to equalise them by manipulating the colours and sizes, perhaps suggesting that all forms of visual imagery should be equally valued, undermining the hierarchy of arts that often placed the mediums of painting, sculpture and architecture above those such as prints and visual imagery from popular entertainment.

In The Silken World of Michelangelo we see this hierarchy of medium and subject matter disrupted. Surrealists used collage as a significant form of creating their work using pre-existing materials such as magazines and newspapers, and they paid serious attention to popular culture. This work in the series makes further use of collage and popular culture as we see images of art, cartoons, brail, music, texts and patterns combined within the composition. The juxtaposition of a photograph of the face of David by the Renaissance sculptor Michelangelo and an image of Walt Disney’s famous character Mickey Mouse is an example of Paolozzi  disrupting the hierarchy of art historical classification, style and taste formed over centuries of artistic practice. The two images have been placed next to each other and Paolozzi has chosen to only display an angle of the face of the David; by doing this, he downplays the significance given to it as a sculpture because you cannot see the rest of the statue. This is emphasised by the fact that the image is a reproduction of the David, likely a screen print copy of a photograph. He has also manipulated the colours and tones and surrounded both images with a gold colour that could serve to elevate their status as they appear almost gilded.

The title references ‘the silken world’ which appears to connect to this gilded appearance of the images. This could also reference the aura that high art is often perceived to have, as outlined in writer and philosopher Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, where he argues that even the most perfect reproduction lacks presence in time and space and that for the real object this gives it the ‘aura’ (Benjamin 1936). Benjamin’s concept of the ‘aura’ is something Paolozzi would likely disagree with because he embraces all the mediums represented in the work, particularly reproductions, and by placing these two specific images in this context he is equalising them which in turn breaks down any hierarchy at play. The effect this creates is that the images are not considered individually as high art versus popular culture, but are instead seen on an equal platform, suggesting that all visual images have importance and value.

Paolozzi’s choice of the medium of screen printing was significant in relation to the content of the series. By using the relatively new technique, which was free of associations with artistic tradition in 1967, Paolozzi was again breaking the hierarchical traditions of artistic medium. This is a notion that was not shared by everyone at the time of Moonstrips Empire News. Paolozzi himself responded to an article written in the Guardian newspaper which stated that the Printmakers Council of Great Britain ‘barely tolerated’ Paolozzi’s screen prints (1967, quoted in Collins, 2014). He responded by stating that: ‘A monumental amount of work involved hand cutting stencils to precise standards. Each print was a unique colour combination and the screens destroyed on completion. By employing engineering methods the iconography of the sculptor can be extended far beyond the normal range of the traditionally trained and studio bound artist and the high technical standards of industrial commercial process…’.(1967, quoted in Collins, 2014). Paolozzi highlights the amount of artistic skill required for his screen prints and refers to the destruction of the screens once complete so that they cannot be reproduced, in an effort to defend the concept of originality when producing screen prints. This quote once again reinforces the idea that for Paolozzi the medium of screen printing is just as significant as any other form of art, and that by using it he is able to create these dynamic collages.

To conclude, by taking an art historical approach to Moonstrips Empire News we have situated Paolozzi within the art historical context of the 1960s in Britain. This has involved examining some of his influences, looking at Duchamp’s Green Box as a predecessor for the series, and focusing on the high art and popular culture subject matter which is present in Paolozzi’s prints, as well as considering how the use of screen printing heralded a new form of media for artists to experiment with. Paolozzi himself stated in reference to the series that: ‘fine art and popular culture, kitsch and technology intermingle on equal terms, creating new contexts and eliminating forever traditional barriers which have become meaningless in the modern world’ (1967, quoted in Collins, 2014).

As well as delivering the talk about the Moonstrips Empire News print series and how it can be considered in light of art historical approaches, we were able to assist the RCC team with installing the exhibition in the Rotunda space. The placement was a great opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the amazing collections that the RCC holds and has inspired us to pursue a career in the arts sector after our graduation.

 

 

Bibliography

Benjamin, W. (1936) The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Reproduced in C. Harrison and P. Woods (1998) Art in Theory, 1815-1900: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Oxford: Blackwell.

Brittain, D. (2009) The Jet Age Compendium: Eduardo Paolozzi. London: Four Corners.

Collins, J. (2014) Eduardo Paolozzi. London: Lund Humphries.

Finch. C. (1967) Introductory Text for Moonstrips Empire News. London: Kelpra Studios.

Miles, R. (1977) The Complete Prints of Eduardo Paolozzi: Prints, Drawings, Collages 1944 – 1977. London: Victoria and Albert.

Pearson, F. (1999) Paolozzi. Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland.

 

The following publications were also useful throughout our research:

Herrmann, D. (2017) Eduardo Paolozzi. London: Whitechapel Gallery

Middleton, M. (1963) Eduardo Paolozzi. London: Methuen.

Selz, P. and, Stonard, J. (2011) Eduardo Paolozzi: Archeology of a Used Future: Sculpture 1946-1959. London: Jonathan Clark Fine Art.

Spencer, R. and Ruhrberg. K. (1976) Eduardo Paolozzi: Recent Work. Edinburgh: Scottish Arts Council.

Wilson, C. (2017) Eduardo Paolozzi: Projects 1975 – 2000.London: Flowers.