Roy Lichtenstein: How Modern Art was Saved by Donald Duck

I’ve read this very interesting little book (45 pages); a biography of Roy Lichtenstein, (1923-1997) the American artist who’s described as the architect of pop art. I didn’t know about him before, but apparently he painted such cartoon-inspired paintings in early 1960’s:

Image         Image

These must have seemed iconoclastic in those years, when old-school painters were spending hours on their painstaking brush strokes. (Lichtenstein made a series of paintings called Brushstrokes in mid-1960s, parodying Abstract Expressionism). I like the fact that these paintings are both sarcastic and self-referential; Donald Duck and Brad are believed to stand for the artist himself. Through such tongue-in-cheek paintings – which look like nothing but oversized cartoon panels – Lichtenstein shocked the art scene of the time while suggesting a new paradigm for visual art. Author Alastair Sooke calls his work “propethic”: Lichtenstein did really hook a big one and his paintings became masterpieces.

The book explains the story behind these and other paintings, Lichtenstein’s process of artistic maturation, how gatekeepers in the art world were almost offended by his boldness and how he and Andy Warhol were experimenting with similar pop art at the same time unbeknownst to each other. Author Sooke places his paintings in a context in the history of art, for their impact can only be understood in perspective, and analyzes the symbolism he employed. For example, the muscular Popeye knocking Bluto down in his Popeye (1961) represents the inter-generational struggle between PopArtists (note the play on words) and the Abstract Expressionists (25). These analyses made me want to look up those paintings on the Internet.

There are technical details as well, like this:

“[The] dots […] quickly became one of Lichtenstein’s signature motifs. They mimic a common commercial printing technique known as the ‘Ben-Day dot’. In 1879 Benjamin Day had developed an inexpensive technique involving patterns of coloured dots that allowed publishers to mechanically reproduce pictures with a surprising degree of detail and sophistication. Lichtenstein was excited by this visual convention of mass culture, and, starting in 1961, he tried to replicate the effect in his paintings. To begin with, he used a dog-grooming brush with plastic bristles dipped in oil paint. […] Eventually, in 1962, he settled upon a satisfactory solution: he painted dots using as a stencil a large perforated industrial metal screen that he had acquired from a company in New York” (20-21).

Lichtenstein’s story is one of creativity as well as perseverance. He had to do menial painting jobs to earn a living before his idiosyncratic style found supporters, but he never gave up art. The two paintings above suggest that one of the objects of his mockery was himself; Sooke also depicts him as a modest man. The first chapter (pp. 1-5) is titled “Introduction: Mr Lichtenstein, it’s time for your pills” – apparently he used to tell his wife that someday, somebody was going to wake him up from a long dream, he would still be the same person but on a wheelchair, and they’d say to him “Mr Lichtenstein, it’s time for your pills” (5).

I love those snappy little books; you learn useful things while enjoying yourself. This one was a Penguin, but I have OUP ones as well. They’re impossible to resist, especially on the “3 for 2” tables.

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