A Pop Retrospective: An afternoon at the Tate Modern

Today I went to check out the Lichtenstein Retrospective at the Tate Modern. It was an interesting experience. My exposure to the art world has been minimal and admittedly I look at most work as a lay man. But to some extent that is the beauty of the subjectivity of art. You don’t have to be an expert with a trained eye to be able to have an opinion. So here’s mine.

Lichtenstein’s work shows a remarkable diversity in its influences and its subject matter. It combines what may be described as “high” and “low” art. The latter of these, traditionally speaking would I suppose be linked to popular culture imagery over traditional themes. Many of his paintings, the “War and Romance” series to be more precise, feel like cut-outs or extracts from old comics, right down to the sound effects (like out of the old Batman TV series). They seem to represent interludes or moments that attempt to tell entire stories. And I can see how if one opened up one’s imagination one could build a running story across some of the works. What struck me about most of his work was the limited color palette. He seems to use deep contrast and bright colors to build a sense of drama in his paintings, a sort of invigoration.

I was also intrigued by his purposeful use of already existing images and reinventing them of sorts. It poses an interesting question about perception. Not to mention the questions it raises for a student of Law regarding non-literal copying, fair use, derivative works and like concepts. While some I can see could not be objected to for copyright infringement, because they are heavily transformative and recall different imagery than the original, others seem to be very close to the original, the impact being more in the representation rather than any transformative treatment of the work itself.

Though most of his work contained common elements, there is a great range of expression in his works. I was particularly intrigued by Room 7 of the exhibition, which consisted of paintings influenced by other artists’ styles. I could definitely see the influence of Picasso in a lot of these works, but with a more modern geometric and vivid expression. One work in this series that caught my eye was “Laocoon” – which was far more fluid in its brush strokes than any of the other paintings. It seemed to me a sort of “deconstructed” classical painting – with Greek figures and themes.

Lichtenstein created some interesting conceptions of the nude. His representations of the female form were far removed from the classical or romanticized nudes, which seem more somber and provocative. His paintings were more like cartoon-ized pages out of a Hustler magazine – playful and lively. One piece that was particularly interesting was a sculpture which showed the figure of a woman represented simply as Blonde hair, breasts and a stomach (possibly symbolizing the womb). I wonder if this was his comment on the objectification of women as simply figures of visual pleasure and conception.

I was also some what taken by his Chinese landscapes. While usually such works show an intricate blending of colors and subtle shading, Lichtenstein’s renditions were far more minimal and of course used his characteristic Benday dots and a sense of empty space.

While I was amazed by the sheer variety of his influences and the different styles he experimented with, I wouldn’t say that this was an artist I could really love. I have personally always loved the work created during the Renaissance period, particularly the work of Painter, Sculptor, Inventor and all-around genius Leonardo Da Vinci. Well perhaps “loved” is a strong word (we do as a culture use this word far more freely than we should – but that’s a discussion for another time). Lets go with the word “admired” instead. I suppose I prefer art that is more evocative and shows a depth that is evident in the work. I feel like a lot of Lichtenstein’s work was more a comment on the state of the art world or the changing conception of art itself, and being unfamiliar with that, it didn’t get through to me as much. I was visually pleased but could not say that the work did more for me than that.

If you’re intrigued go check it out for yourself, the show is on till May 27th 2013. Or catch one of the many other exhibits on at the Tate Modern.


I think the gift shop represented possibly the most humorous observation of the day – That of “low” commercial imagery, which was turned into “high” pop art, being turned into commercial products to be sold to the public as souvenirs – A true instance of life imitating art imitating life.


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