Pop Art: Before | British vs. American

Welcome to the first article in our series about Pop Art! In this three-part guide we will cover everything you need to know about this artistic movement: Pop Art: Before | British vs. American, Pop Art: Now: Hirst to Kusama and Pop Art: Female Pop Artists You Never Heard Before.  

Here in Pop Art: Before | British vs. American, we are addressing the origins of the Pop Art movement and it’s aesthetics both in Britain and America. We are also going to look at how it became such a global phenomenon (and still continues to be to this day). 

The Origins of Pop Art

 

Pop Art emerged as an art movement in the late 1950s and reached its peak in the 1960s. As the world was recovering from World War II (1939 – 1945), economic expansion boomed across the globe, which became a key source of inspiration for the founding artists of Pop Art. They used everyday objects (such Warhol’s well-known Campbell’s Soup Cans) to make clever critiques on the nature of mass-production, mass-advertising, and how they were fuelling a capitalist post-war society, which had all the hallmarks of ‘boom and bust’. 

We can also see that some of Pop Art’s origins came from the movements that preceded it, such as Dadaism: a nihilistic art movement active in the 1920s, known for challenging traditional art and  societal ‘norms’. For example, The French Dadaist artist, Marcel Duchamp, famously used a ‘readymade’ (everyday) object, to create his groundbreaking artwork that shook the art world’s perception of what art was, (and indeed what it could be): Fountain (1917). This extreme example of an ‘anti-establishment aesthetic’ arguably laid the groundwork for disruptive aesthetics which Pop Art directly built upon. Of course, there are divergences in the two movements, but the underlying concept of elevating everyday mundane objects to subjects of fine artworks in an effort to engage the masses in important social commentary remains constant. 

 

British & American: Key Aesthetic Characteristics and Differences

Before we go into the differences between British and American… What's the first thing that comes to mind when you think about Pop Art in general? Bright colours and objects/icons from popular culture? Sounds about right! Richard Hamilton, (often considered to be the founder of British Pop Art), famously described the entire art movement as “popular, transient, expendable, low-cost, mass-produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous and big business.”

 

Even though both British and American Pop Art had these same core values, the aesthetics do have their differences: British Pop Art’s aesthetic was influenced by American pop culture as it was seen and interpreted from across the pond, whereas American Pop Art was a direct response to the ‘American dream’ narrative they were experiencing from ‘within’. As the American pop artists were experiencing this society first hand, they seemed to actively emphasise the sense of irony and detachment they saw between the ‘dream’ and the actual ‘reality’ of the everyday person in America at that time. Andy Warhol’s work is a perfect example of this. His famous works, Campbell's Soup Cans (1962) and Marilyn Monroe (1967) encapsulate and critique the two prominent aspects of the American dream: raw capitalism and the superficial nature of pop culture that the ‘dream’ encourages everyone to chase.

From across the Atlantic Ocean, British pop artist Hamilton responded to the same theme, but by using real cuttings from American illustrated magazines to act as a mirror to directly mock the ‘American dream’ consumer culture with its own outputs. In his work  Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing? (1956). The combination of the television; hoover with a very long hose; big tin of ham and the crest of the Ford Motor Company all combine to create a somewhat laughable, but nonetheless frightening example of the growing materialistic values that were starting to spread out of America and begin influencing overseas cultures (such as Britain themselves). 

British Pop Art

Contrary to common belief, Pop Art actually emerged in Britain (not America) in the mid-1950s, where founding artists of ‘The Independent Group’ (which was founded in London in 1952) such as Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi and Nigel Henderson, painters and sculptors first shared their disapproval of ‘high art’ and everything it represented, before it reached the shores of America at the end of that decade. 

 

Hamilton, who is often perceived as ‘The Father of the Pop Art movement’ (due to his pivotal role in founding ‘The Independent Group’) developed an interesting aesthetic that corresponded with the sudden influx of American consumer goods, which he used as an innovative approach to his art. In his work $he (1958-61), Hamilton explores how advertisers fetishised the female body and consumer goods. In the painting, Hamilton used images from three separate American magazines: an electric toaster, a pink refrigerator and a glamour model, (Vikki Dougan). During the 50s, Hamilton taught at the Royal College of Art, London, where he mentored the second generation of Pop Art in Britain: Pauline Boty, David Hockey, and Peter Blake.

Hamilton’s prodigy, Blake, then went on to be most famous for designing one of the most iconic images of British Pop Art in the 1960s – the album cover of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967).  Alongside this, Blake also produced several interesting collage-based paintings that included magazine images, postcards, or mass-produced objects. 

American Pop Art

Even though Pop Art first emerged in Britain, American Pop Art is probably still the country that first comes to your mind when you think about the origins of this art movement. Its bright colours, easily recognisable objects and compositions and well-known pop culture iconography has made a lasting impression in the art history books, and remains a divisive topic amongst art critics. Some critics have described Pop Art as a ‘joke’ and ‘vulgar’ within the realms of fine art, whilst others say its ability to bring about a democratic blend of ‘connoisseurs and untrained viewers’ who can both enjoy and appreciate it is a welcomed change to the usual trends of the art world.

Nicholas Orchard, (Head of Modern British and Irish Art at Christie’s in London), stated that ‘Americans immediately fell in love with Pop Art’ as it represented themes that resonated with so many people of the nation at that time, and on so many levels – pop culture, mass consumption and international relations. 

Indeed, alongside pop culture, war was certainly a prominent theme throughout American Pop Art. One of the most notable patriotic artworks of the period was Flag (1954-5) by Jasper Johns. Inspired by a dream, Johns painted the American flag, as it was at that time (excluding Alaska and Hawaii). He saw it as the most important symbol of America and its identity, particularly so after he had served in the army himself where he would have seen and interacted with it on a daily basis.

By using such a strong, globally recognised symbol to summarise America and its culture, Johns freed himself to focus on the actual process of making the painting itself as opposed to composition or design of the artwork. Comfortable in the assumption that viewers would bring their own thoughts and views when standing in front of this well known symbol, he was able to effectively to use his process to open a dialogue with his audience around his own commentary on American culture, and his own experiences of war in particular. Using panels, paint, encaustic (a mixture of pigment and melted wax), and newspaper scraps, Johns effectively conveyed the ‘disarray’, (and perhaps especially in his case, emotional trauma) which he felt actually made up the fabric of the American flag. This juxtaposed with the message the country wanted to outwardly convey; that America was unwavering, unphased and ultimately, united. Through the ‘patchwork’ effect of John’s process and the eeriness it creates, Johns directly challenged the confident sharp lines and block colour that is typically synonymous with the flag, and how America wanted to outwardly present themselves.

Another iconic artwork that combines war and pop culture is Roy Lichtenstein’s Whaam! (1963). Even though the composition was taken from a DC Comics All-American Men of War (issue 89), Lichtenstein divided the original piece into two canvases and used different colours that differed from how it appeared in the original comic book (for example the letters of ‘WHAAM’ are yellow instead of white) perhaps as a way of imposing his own perspective on the piece. Taking into consideration Lichtenstein’s own service in the US Army in 1943-6 and the fact that the piece was created during the escalation of the Vietnam War (1955-1975), perhaps Whaam! Is Lichtenstein’s way of exposing the contrast of what American cultures implies is only meant to be a ‘fantasy’ (that lives only in comic books), with the stark reality of what he and many other American men had experienced in their own direct ‘reality’ in their everyday lives. It could also be seen as a response to ongoing conflicts and a “statement on the folly of war”. 

Andy Warhol is most famous for his takes on consumerism and pop culture (so it’s no surprise he is affectionately named the ‘King of Pop’!). His artworks depicting soup cans and portraits of Marilyn Monroe certainly shaped the iconic look of American Pop Art that we know and love today, but he also wasn’t afraid to delve into heavier topics and aesthetics, at the complete other end of the spectrum, such as death. 

In his Death and Disaster series, Warhol took newspaper images of car crashes and suicides and explored the effect of image reproduction repeatedly across a canvas. He was testing his hypothesis that gruesome images lose their power to shock and affect us when they are seen over and over again. 

His Electric Chair (1964), which is a part of this Death and Disaster series, shows an unoccupied execution device in an eerie dark room. It was based on a press photograph from 1953 of the death chamber in ‘Sing Sing’ Prison in New York, where two American citizens were executed. 

Later, in 1971 he then produced a series of ten screen prints of the Electric Chair in different colours to play with that same hypothesis and push it to the extreme. Warhol was fascinated by the fact that death has such a big part of our lives, but we often distance ourselves from it, and so he wanted to push us (unwillingly) into acceptance of it in this series. However, Electric Chair contrasted with the other images from the Death and Disaster series which were more literal, as actual human figures were the subjects of the work, as opposed to this more abstracted (and eerie) reference to them. The power of Electric Chair comes in the emptiness and void it portrays, along with how its repetition desensitises the viewer to the concept of death on an ‘abstract level’, going beyond the already explored ‘literal level’ of the previous works in the series. Therefore, Warhol makes us confront the fact that we quite literally cannot escape the concept.

Pop Art Over the Decades

In the 1970s, Pop Art gradually held less of the spotlight in the art world, as the focus began to move towards performance and installation art. It’s relevance was however revived in the 1980s, where it gained a new title to reflect its resurgence; ‘Neo-Pop’. 

Even though the aesthetics of Pop Art today might feel like they have evolved quite a lot since the 1950s, the pop artists and the works of today seem to carry much of the same satirical and sarcastic views on society, mass-consumption and capitalism. In the next article of this series, Pop Art: Now: Hirst to Kusama, we will talk about what the movement looks like in our present day, and the most prominent artists that have shaped (and continue to shape) it. 

We hope you’ve enjoyed the first part of the Pop Art series. Which are your favourite artists and why? Do you prefer British or American Pop Art?




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