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From Lichtenstein to Paris, at Centre Pompidou

(Paris.) At one point in Centre Pompidou's exhibition of Roy Lichtenstein, the visitor reads "Return this drawing to Lichtenstein" on a canvas {Cathedral (Study), 1968}. No doubt, the artist was conscious of the double meaning, it might seem he even spent a career fighting it. The minuscule mountain country between Switzerland and Austria - that of course has one more "e" in its name than the artist - makes think of grumpy old men in black suits sitting at massive antique oak desks encircled by precious Old Master paintings on high wood-paneled walls, to contemplate their bank statements and tax avoiding schemes with only so much as the hint of a satisfied smile. The last thing anybody would associate with Liechtenstein, the country, are comic albums, pop and contemporary art, or contemporary culture in general. These are the first things that come to mind in connection with Lichtenstein, the artist. The one thing they have in common is how Royalism suits art much better than democracy, too.

Centre Pompidou is the fourth stop of this exhibition's journey around the world, but the Parisians are quick to assure that many works here have not been shown in Chicago, Washington and London.

Who only knew Roy Lichtenstein's "BOOM!" cartoon paintings, that "POW!" made his fame, will be surprised "BANG!" Although Pompidou could not completely dispense with those works that weren't missing from any upper middle class children room in the 1980s (in poster form at least), there is much more to discover from sculptures to "remixes" of historical masterpieces.

The show starts with George Washington and Mickey Mouse (plus Donald Duck, in Look Mickey,... from 1961) side-by-side, two paintings showing emblematic figures of America. In how far are the ideals of the one perverted by the other, struggles politics with publicity, liberty with consumerism (and Walt Disney was all but a democrat)? Half a century ago, the Janus-face of the States was no less disturbing than today.

When you make use of techniques and images from popular culture in your work, and still want to be considered a serious artist, you imperatively need to include links to art history and give proof of your education. Roy Lichtenstein reached this effect not least with his famous dots that, beside implying a rampant measles epidemic in his paintings' world, refer to cheap serigraphy technics typical for advertisement posters (-> consumerism -> society), and to Pointillism. Breaking up the "aplat" comic colors, they appear on almost every work to make it immediately identifiable, but also to distinguish it from actual comic strips. The few exceptions where they are missing appear less artistic, indeed.

Particularly conscious about theory, Roy Lichtenstein even wondered what would happen if his style stood alone by itself, if it were the only motive. The apparent result of this reflection is Stretcher Frame with Cross Bars, 1968, a painting of the backside of a painting, dotted.

Considering Roy Lichtenstein's awareness of art history and his own position in it, it furthermore needs to be said that comic strips have precursors in high art themselves, dating back to 13th Century at least (Giorgio Vasari named Cimabue as the first artist to include words in his paintings).

With regards to his versions of well-known Monet, Matisse, Picasso or Mondrian paintings translated into his style, Roy Lichtenstein said, "I don't feel I'm doing parodies, I feel I'm reinterpreting an earlier work in my own style, as did Picasso, when he reinvented Velazquez, Delacroix or Rembrandt". Like any artist with a bit of self-respect, Roy Lichtenstein was eager to add himself to the canon. If somebody would dare to criticize the style, the content itself was untouchable.

On other occasions, he depicted earlier works in the background of new ones as a reference to what has already become history, nonchalantly declaring them citation-worthy. Apartment interiors by Lichtenstein thus feature Lichtenstein next to Matisse.

The "non-irony" claim is certainly believable in regards to that part of Roy Lichtenstein's oeuvre, yet for his cartoon motives humor cannot be excluded - unless it were involuntary, which seems quite improbable.

As the saying goes, "All's fair in love and war" - even comic strips. But platitudes like "The exhausted soldiers, sleepless for five and six days at a time, always hungry for decent chow, suffering from the tropical fungus infections, kept fighting!" (not "Tikki", but Takka Takka, 1962) are hilarious in all their pathos. Yet, war propaganda always worked and still works with such simple stereotypic slogans. Debunking the dumbness of heroic speech, and simultaneously alluding to the implementation of war rhetoric in general culture from childhood on - and to the childishness of war itself -, Lichtenstein reveals a Vonnegutian sense of humor. The uncommented presentation reveals the ridicule.

The Lichtensteinian style furthermore owes much to advertising. There is the distinct aesthetics of advertisement: The next frame to Oh Jeff... could very well show this girl comforted by her favorite chocolate bar (claim: "Certain decisions are hard to take. Others are not."). And M-Maybe would just look perfect with the logo of a hair spray.

Publicity is propaganda and propaganda only works when there is a product. Marketing, publicity, makes the shell that is bound to its content, the product it shall promote. There is a golden rule of successful advertising: Is a commercial too good, people will watch but they won't buy it (literally). This is the line between propaganda and entertainment - or art. But even art is rarely permitted to rely only on itself; on the very contrary it's full of reflection.

Roy Lichtenstein explored the other side as well. In works from 1961 and '62 the product is the ad, a Golf Ball, a Tire, a Portable Radio, etc. For this last example the canvas follows the shape of the image (/of the object), thus preparing the path for Lichtenstein's sculptures. Most of these can best be described as "silhouettes in bronze". There are also classic sculptures - a bust like a cartoon come alive (Blonde, 1965), and multiple shapes overlapping {Wall Explosion II, 1962, Small Explosion (Desk Explosion), 1965}, but for the most part (of Pompidou's curator's selection) Roy Lichtenstein's sculptures are nothing else than two-dimensional forms: Sculpted drawings (Lamp II, 1977; Sleeping Muse, 1983).

The exhibition helps to (re)discover the work of one of the major figures of 20th Century Pop Art, and his unique reflections on contemporary visual language.

Roy Lichtenstein, Centre Pompidou, 03 July-04 November 2013



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