British Pop Art 1956-1972 Modena 18 april – 4 july 2004

Pop Art, the most widely known and appreciated artistic movement of the second half of the 20th century, was born in England at the end of the 1950s although it became internationally famous in its American form. The key artworks of this extraordinary period of British art have been brought together, many for the first time ever, in a prestigious exhibition organised by the Galleria Civica and by the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Modena, curated by Marco Livingstone – the world expert on the topic – and Walter Guadagnini, director of the Galleria Civica. Over 60 works including the paintings, sculptures and designs of 18 different artists give us a glimpse of the world of images that surrounded 1960s’ “Swinging” London – from pin-ups to cinema divas, rock legends and advertisements – through the masterpieces of one of the most productive periods of contemporary art.
In 1956, a small collage by Richard Hamilton, one of the founding fathers of the movement together with Peter Blake and Eduardo Paolozzi, created the basis of Pop aesthetics, ironically picking out from the magazines of the time the most captivating and kitsch images of the new world and the new lifestyles created by industry and the mass media. The version of that work revised by Hamilton himself in 1991, opens the Modenese exhibition and heads the numerous themes on show in the rooms of Palazzo Santa Margherita and Palazzina dei Giardini: the two venues in which the exhibition is held. For the first time ever in Italy in such a large number, seven of Peter Blake’s works (who designed perhaps the most famous record cover of all time – that of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” by the Beatles) show the poetry of an artist who is both refined and naïve, playful yet poignant, and able to breathe new life into popular celebrities such as wrestlers, as well as paying an affectionate tribute to legendary actress-icons such as Marylin Monroe, Kim Novak and Elsa Martinelli at the end of the ‘50s.
But the Pop era really started with the turn of the decade when a group of students from the Royal College of Art made their appearance on the London and world scene with large format attention-grabbing and (at that time) scandalous works, full of bright colours and current day references. Their names were Peter Phillips, Allen Jones, David Hockney, Patrick Caulfield, R.B. Kitaj, Derek Boshier and Pauline Boty, while other ex-students of the same school such as Richard Smith and Joe Tilson were also soon to make a name for themselves. Other institutes such as the Slade School of Art turned out Antony Donaldson, Colin Self, Jann Haworth, Gerald Laing, and other new entries on the scene included innovative sculptors like Clive Barker and Nicholas Monro. These artists had taken alternative cultural and poetic choices and were united by the common desire to interpret and transform the world around them into art. Every hint, every trace of the day to day life of the times could be used as a pretext to create a work of art: the double-decker London buses reappraised by Allen Jones, or the pinball decorations so dear to Peter Phillips; the Californian swimming pools discovered by Hockney during his travels in the United States, or the Cuban flag immortalised by Boshier; the coffee cups with the “sculptured” sweets in glaring shades by Jann Haworth, or Clive Barker’s electric razor case in bronze.
A group of artists capable of understanding the playful side of art even at the extremely high level of artistic quality at which they were painting and sculpting, capable of challenging common clichés (the provocative images of scantily clad young women by Jones, Phillips, Donaldson, Boty, and Hockney’s overt homosexuality kicked up a scandal as much among the bourgeoisie as among the emerging groups of hard-line feminists), but above all, still capable of finding points of contact between new artistic languages and a vast heterogeneous public which declared it an immediate success, becoming genuinely popular.
And so via artworks the majority of which have never been seen in Italy, the exhibition traces the atmosphere of a decade in which for the first time, youth culture took the centre stage in society and culture. It is not by chance that the last work in the exhibition is dated 1972 and that the emblematic work in question is Richard Hamilton’s celebrated serigraph showing Mick Jagger and the gallery owner Robert Fraser being arrested on drugs charges. This is a symbolic end to the heroic era of “Swinging London” which, however, in no way prevents us from enjoying the positive fresh and original material which came out of that period.

An Overview of British Pop Art
Marco Livingstone
From the exposition catalogue “POP ART UK. British Pop Art 1956 – 1972”,
Silvana Editoriale, Milan, 2004

(…) Daily life in Britain was drab and grey for some years after the War. Rationing of food came to an end only in 1952, and the benefits of the Capitalist system enjoyed by Americans – abundant consumer goods, television, increased leisure time – only gradually began to become reality for the British in the early 1960s. When Prime Minister Harold Macmillan proclaimed in 1957 that ‘You’ve never had it so good’, it was still for many a case of wishful thinking.
British Pop Art, particularly in the forms that emerged in the work of painters studying together at the Royal College of Art in London during the early 1960s, was largely the invention of working-class men whose early years coincided with the deprivations of World War II. It was perhaps this common experience, rather than pure serendipity, that explains why the intake of students in autumn 1959 included so many who were to become important figures in the movement by the time they completed their postgraduate course three years later: David Hockney, Allen Jones and Derek Boshier, all born in 1937, Peter Phillips, born in 1939, and the American R. B. Kitaj, born in 1932, who had settled in England in 1957 and was studying there under the terms of the G. I. Bill. Patrick Caulfield, born in 1936, arrived at the College in 1960, and Pauline Boty, born in 1938, studied in the Stained Glass department (1958-61) before becoming the only female Pop painter in the few years before her death from cancer in 1966. Compulsory military service, or National Service as it was known, was phased out in the UK in 1960, and of the artists listed here only Boshier and Hockney (who as a conscientious objector spent two years working as a hospital porter) had their studies interrupted. A new hedonistic atmosphere beckoned.
Earlier in the 1950s other British artists had paved the way. Two prominent members of the Independent Group, Richard Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi, had put into practice many of the group’s theoretical interests in product design, advertising, science fiction and the cinema. The word ‘pop’ itself had first been used in a fine art context at their meetings, and its first published appearance in this sense was in a 1958 article by Lawrence Alloway, one of the critics at the heart of the group. Much of the material to which Hamilton and Paolozzi had recourse was American in origin, in particular the glossy magazines which they plundered for collage material and which they used as a repository of exotic, alluring images of a prosperous way of life. (…)

Walter Guadagnini
From the exposition catalogue “POP ART UK. British Pop Art 1956 – 1972”,
Silvana Editoriale, Milan, 2004

(…) Pop Art represents in some ways the extreme version, brought up to date in its subjects and style, of 19th-century Realism: these are the ‘peintres de la vie moderne’ whose arrival Baudelaire had longed for a hundred years earlier. They are the grandchildren of those Parisian artists who in the second half of the 19th century had created a new and equally surprising language to convey the joy of living in the capital of the century, with its boulevards, cafés and railway stations. It also has to be said that for the Pop artists to open their studio windows onto the world outside did not automatically mean seeing only advertising, science fiction magazines, comics and virtually naked starlets. Nor did it automatically mean becoming sign painters, as some have claimed, confusing the part for the whole and adopting a language forcibly modelled on that of mass communication. For the RCA artists, at least until 1964, opening the windows meant seeing a changing reality and finding, within the various faces of this reality, a storehouse of images, all equally worthy of being transferred to canvas and, at the same time, all crying out for a language suitable for the expression of this complexity.
If we look more closely, it seems a little forced to interpret British Pop Art purely as the affirmation of a low culture as opposed to a high culture. Not only do the works of the various protagonists not support this view, they proclaim the legitimacy or perhaps more accurately the necessity of overcoming such a theoretical division, in the same way as it was necessary and legitimate to overcome the artificial division between abstract and figurative painting. It is a question of a shift in linguistic and conceptual levels, not of the umpteenth formal and ideological contrast. (…)


By Marco Livingstone and Walter Guadagnini



Modena 18 april – 4 july 2004

Palazzo S.ta Margherita

Palazzina dei Giardini

c.so Canalgrande, Modena


Visiting hours


from Tuesday to Friday 11-13; 16,00-19,00.

On Saturday, Sunday and holydays 10,30 –19

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nei festivi 18 e 25 aprile, 1, 2, 9, 16 maggio dalle 10,30 alle 12,30 e dalle 15 alle 18

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Galleria Civica, Palazzo Santa Margherita, c.so Canalgrande 103,

41100 Modena.

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Pop Art UK. british pop art 1956-1972
Tipo di evento Mostra
Periodo 18/04/2004 al
Sede Palazzo Santa Margherita
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