mon 26/08/2019

Pauline Boty: Pop Artist and Woman, Pallant House Gallery | reviews, news & interviews

Pauline Boty: Pop Artist and Woman, Pallant House Gallery

Pauline Boty: Pop Artist and Woman, Pallant House Gallery

The paintings are wonderful, but the curator does a huge disservice to this forgotten artist

Pauline Boty, Colour Her Gone, 1962

This exhibition makes me very sad. And not just because the subject of this long overdue survey died at the age of 28, and so left behind a body of work that stretches to only two very small galleries in the current exhibition, but because it does Pauline Boty, Pop artist and a contemporary of Peter Blake, a disservice. Curated by Sue Tate and first shown at Wolverhampton Art Gallery (and so Pallant House insist they were not in a position to change anything), there’s everything wrong with this exhibition except the works that take us from the relative juvenilia of Boty’s short career to her last major work in 1966, completed shortly before her death from cancer.   

One might begin with the title. Yes, there can be no denying that Boty was a woman, but so is Bridget Riley (both had been students at the Royal College of Art, with Riley preceding her by just a few years), but Riley is alive, and one can only imagine where she would tell curators to get off if they attempted to shoehorn and define her completely on the basis of her sex. If you can imagine such a thing ever happening to a male artist, what would the title “Painter and Man” (ridiculous, I know) infer? It would infer not gender but biography – a promise of a glimpse beyond the paintings and the persona to the person. Since “he” is default, identifying “the man” would not be an attempt to pigeon-hole him in terms of his “gendered perspective”. Yet apparently, this ceaseless “gendering” (I apologise for the verb) is absolutely OK for a female artist, as long as it’s coming from an apparently “feminist perspective”. 

But such is the tunnel vision of many curators, especially if they have special academic interests to promote

Boty, unfortunately, has no say. And so this means that on and on and on do we read of her “gendered” perspective – an adjective either used on almost every other label or else inferred throughout the exhibition, so that the paintings simply aren’t allowed to be or to breath as works of art in their own right but only as a reductive schema to the fact of Boty’s sex. I will go further and say that I find this not only grating but dehumanising – is there no other “perspective” from which Boty might have viewed the world? One is therefore forced to ask: is it really progress to talk about women being historically sidelined as artists and then to go on to straitjacket them by other means, according to another agenda, by prescriptively interpreting their work in such a reductive manner? But such is the tunnel vision of many curators, especially if they have special academic interests to promote.

But this isn’t the only problem. The curator's position on British Pop art is just plain wrong. Tate writes that Boty “eschewing the detached position adopted by the male pop artists, expressed the lived experience of the fan.” Really? From her “gendered perspective” you say? If you knew nothing about Pop art you might even believe this confidently asserted nonsense.  

In fact, one begins to wonder if Tate herself is at all familiar with the movement that Boty was at the centre of. Did Boty’s friend and fellow RCA graduate Peter Blake “adopt a detached position”? You wouldn’t think so if you saw any of his paintings. Isn’t Blake, for instance, actively expressing his “lived experience as a fan” of American popular culture in Self Portrait with Badges, 1961? – his love of Elvis, in particular (he’s holding a fanzine with Elvis on the cover, which might be a clue). And what about his series of paintings of the masked wrestler Nagasaki? Do they not also express the “lived experience of the fan”? 

I could go on. So, OK, I will. What of David Hockney’s early Pop paintings? (He too, though briefly, appears in Ken Russell’s 1962 film for BBC’s Monitor strand, Pop Goes The Easel, which featured Boty and Blake, along with Derek Boshier and Peter Phillips). Is Hockney’s Dollboy, expressing the young Hockney’s desire for the then hip and sexy Cliff Richard (oh, those really were the days), also “detached”?

So when one looks at Boty’s Portrait of Derek Marlowe with Unknown Ladies, 1962-63 (pictured below), how is one meant to understand it as an example of a uniquely different perspective? But again, according to the label, through the act of painting Marlowe, the sexy British novelist, in a vaguely realist style, while above a parade of women’s stylised faces provide a decorative border, Boty “critiques the imbalance of power between the sexes”. 

Portrait of Derek Marlowe with Unknown Women, 1962-63In fact, Boty had painted a similarly composed painting featuring Christine Keeler, which she called Scandal. That painting is now lost but can be seen in tiny reproduction in a magazine spread. It shows Keeler in her famous pose astride a chair, while a frieze of stylised male faces is shown at the top of the painting. But, of course, comparing these two paintings, similar in composition but with genders switched, would not fit so neatly into the curatorial thesis. So it’s not mentioned. And, incidentally, the frieze device was also employed by Peter Phillips in his paintings of sexy women. It’s a common Pop motif, so not just used by Boty, and almost certainly not to “critique the imbalance of power.” 

This leads one to believe that the curator is either ignorant, or else she wishes to stick rigidly to an agenda despite everything presented to the contrary. So it’s essentially a lie. But hang on – what of Boty’s use of lace in her early collages, or the recurring motif of the red rose? Surely she uses lace because, from her “gendered perspective”, it’s closely associated with femininity. Yes, I suppose there’s nothing too outrageous to suggest that association, but then we learn that she makes copious use of lace in one collage, which is a study for a stage design for Jean Genet’s play The Balcony, because this is what the author had specified for the set. Could it not be that Genet influenced Boty’s use of lace in her other collages too? Just a thought. But, no, Boty is simply not allowed to respond to the world in any way other than the curator's way.  

None of this is to say that Boty wasn’t aware of her sexuality, or her status as a woman in a male-dominated arena, nor that she didn’t deploy this awareness in her paintings. In life she was incredibly beautiful and acquired the nickname “the Wimbledon Bardot” shortly after arriving, aged 16, at Wimbledon Art School on a scholarship. Later, she posed for magazine spreads wearing lingerie, and acted in television dramas and on stage. She was a gorgeous hip young scenester – looking more like a knowing Julie Christie, in fact, than a sex kitten Bridget Bardot (the film Darling, starring Christie, is said to have been inspired by her) – and, yes, she caused heads to turn and men, no doubt, to fall at her feet.  

Only Blonde in the World, 1963, © TateAll that is true, yet none of it excuses the curatorial blunderbuss. That Boty appeared to identify with Marilyn Monroe, the enduring Pop icon, might also be true. In her 1963 painting, the cheekily ironic The Only Blonde in the World (pictured above) Monroe is featured swathed in furs and striding centre stage between two funky abstract panels. It’s a wonderful, exuberant painting, as is the striking Colour Her Gone, 1962 (main picture) made poignant because it was painted shortly after Monroe’s death. But Boty also identified as an artist and a painter, and adopted the visual language and iconography of her milieu – we are not short of Pop Marilyns – and so to offer overly prescriptive and misleading interpretations is inexcusable.

Nonetheless, I want everyone to see this exhibition. Boty was a significant talent, as this first survey of her work attests. But do allow the work, for once, to speak for itself. This is an exhibition which accords little respect for its subject's autonomy. And the day I see an exhibition called Peter Blake: Pop Artist and Man is one I look forward to.

 

GREAT POP ART RETROSPECTIVES

Allen Jones, Royal Academy. A brilliant painter derailed by an unfortunate obsession

Andy Warhol: The Portfolios, Dulwich Picture Gallery. An exhibition of still lifes which are anything but still

Ed Ruscha: Fifty Years of Painting, Hayward Gallery. First British retrospective for a modern master

Lichtenstein: A Retrospective, Tate Modern. The heartbeat of Pop Art is given the art-historical credit as he deserves (pictured above, Lichtenstein's Masterpiece, 1962)

Patrick Caulfield, Tate Britain. A late 20th-century great emerges into the light

Richard Hamilton, Tate Modern /ICA. At last, the British 'father of Pop art' gets the retrospective he deserves

 

The paintings simply aren’t allowed to breathe as works of art in their own right but only as a reductive schema to the fact of Boty’s sex

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Fisun Günar takes exception to the emphasis given to Pauline Boty as a woman Pop artist and accuses me of ignorance – but she herself seems unaware of the peculiarly masculine nature of Pop. It was far more male dominated than other art movements of the mid 20th century as Pop historians Livingstone and Madoff both note in their compendious studies on the genre. Pop’s raw material, the imagery of mass culture, reproduced and circulated gender stereotypes so extreme as to now seem laughable and addressed women and men very differently. Women were inevitably differently positioned in relation to such imagery – a cultural not an essentialist argument. Pop Art regaled in pin-ups and strippers, treated as ‘objects’ along with machines and domestic items and has been anathemised by 70s feminist art criticism as inevitably masculinist if not misogynist. In 1991 the RA held a huge Pop show, where out of 202 Pop works, only one was by a woman. So - gender does matter when it comes to Pop. At the time most women artists turned away from Pop’s subject matter – newly arrived on the art scene they wanted to get out of the kitchen and away from sexual stereotyping to be taken seriously as artists, equal to the men. The fact that Boty was a woman who engaged with mass culture and was happy to perform a ‘pop’ dolly bird persona is highly significant and also risky – her over identification with mass culture has damaged her artistic reputation. Bridget Riley worked with totally abstract forms and, wisely given the nature of the art game, wanted to avoid being seen as a woman – she described herself as a hermaphrodite when she was in the studio and felt that feminism, that drew attention to one’s status as a woman, was needed like ‘a hole in the head’. Günar suggests that I have imposed a feminist reading on Boty, yet Boty’s overt feminist intent is fully evidenced in witty and vitriolic monologues that she delivered on Public Ear – a trendy radio programme (quoted extensively in the book that accompanies the show) and in a long interview with Nell Dunn. She lams into women’s magazine stories that ‘sell’ marriage as ‘the golden climax of life’, attacks smug establishment men, equates the social suppression of women to their sexual repression and extols the revolutionary potential of young girls in their bold provocative fashions breaking up the sexually repressed old order ‘All over the country [they] are starting, shouting, shaking and if they terrify you they mean to and they are beginning to impress the world’. To ignore the clear intention of the artist would be to do her an injustice. It is noticeable that Günar’s article fails to mention the unapologetically feminist title of one of the later works It’s a Man’s World II welcomed by David Alan Mellor, along with It’s a Man’s World I as ‘the most important paintings (and prophetic for the course of feminist art) produced in London in the 60s.’ In her rush to condemn, Günar misunderstands the point about ‘detachment’ and the position of the fan. Yes, of course the young male artists took delight in the artifacts and imagery of mass culture – that’s what Pop is all about and in that sense were ‘fans’. My argument is that they were commenting on it, in a pleased and knowing way, rather than engaging with the enraptured and affective experience of movie or pop fans – the ones that swoon and scream. In Blake’s Girls and Their Heroes the female fans are monstrous and alien, in Got a Girl huge hard edged chevrons distance the viewer form the pop singers. This can be contrasted with Boty’s distinctive use of painted collage in My Colouring Book to express empathetically, the felt and shared if melancholic pleasures of listening to a pop song of heartbreak. As she said herself (using the first person plural) ‘Our fears, hopes, frustrations and dreams, we can pin them on a star who shows them to millions, and if we can do that we’re no longer alone’ And lets be honest – in Self Portrait with Badges, Blake looks more like the anthropologist – fascinated by the culture he is drawn to but still the outsider, slightly ludicrously wearing the feathered headdress. The Hockney painting Günar refers to is a response to a newspaper headline he spotted ‘two boys cling to cliff all night’. It’s an amused comment on a delightful pun that allowed him a coded expression of homosexual desire – certainly not an exploration of the feelings of the majority of Cliff Richards’ fans. ‘Detachment’ was seen by Livingstone as the defining feature of Pop. In Ken Russell’s film Pop Goes The Easel Peter Philips in cool dude pose keeps an anonymous girl between him and the mass cultural sources of his work. Having flipped through a movie magazine he tosses it to a reclining girl who reads it avidly. Another girl plays a pin ball machine and Phillips looks on with detached interest as the camera cuts between pin ball imagery and his painting. Boty, on the other hand, mimes to Shirley Temple’s Good Ship Lolly Pop, in top hat and tails she also invokes Dietrich in Blue Angel – a delightfully postmodern intertextuality avant la lettre. Surely ‘eschewing the detached position’ adopted by the men. And this different approach is played out in the paintings. In The Only Blonde in The World Boty takes us beyond the picture surface to a tactile use of brush and paint, and just as ‘fans’ use their imaginations on such images, she brings the monchrome PR image into life with licks of colour. In the book I contrast this to Gerald Laing’s use of ben-day dots in his portrait of Brigitte Bardot – keeping everything on the picture surface and drawing attention to the means of reproduction that mediate our knowledge of the stars – an equally valid but different endeavor. Throughout the book and the panels, I make the point that Boty’s real transgression was in the attempt to collapse the opposing identities of serious artist and sexual woman – a dynamic that speaks to a current generation. So it is disingenuous to suggest, at the end of the article, that this side of Boty’s identity has been ignored. It seems that this collapse of binary opposites is still a transgression too far. A male view of the world has been universalized – this is beginning to change and yes indeed perhaps we should be asking about Peter Blake – Pop Artist and Man. Of course the work should speak for itself – but Günar tells us almost nothing of what it says to her, and doesn’t even pay proper attention to it. She gets the title of the Marlowe painting wrong– it’s Portrait of Derek Marlowe with Unknown Ladies” not ‘Women’ (quite a different inflection). Marlowe really is not painted in a ‘vaguely realistic’ style – effectively photorealistic and, dry brushed, the rendering would stand easily next to Richter’s highly regarded use of the same technique. The ‘Ladies’ are not ‘decorative’ as Günar says (she must have merely glanced) – they are grotesque and painted with crude swipes of the brush: it is not the compositional use of a top panel that is the point (and indeed used elsewhere to different effect) but the contrasting manipulation of paint. I agree with Günar that you should go and see the work for yourself. In the wake of David Mellor’s initial unearthing of key works on Boty’s brother’s farm, it is my sustained work over two decades, discovering lost paintings, establishing an archive of images, publishing, giving papers, maintaining contact with owners and so on that has enabled this exhibition and brought the work to wider visibility. A common reaction has been ‘how has such wonderful stuff been kept out of sight for so long’. How indeed – worth reflecting on and the exhibition intends to challenge the dominant (male) narrative of Pop and such a challenge will rock the boat and upset people. Before you dismiss the argument, read the book, look at the work and after reflection make up your own mind.

I too have visited "Pauline Boty: Pop Artist and Woman" at Chichester's Pallant House Gallery, and wholeheartedly endorse Fisun Güner's conclusion that everyone should see this exhibition. However, I am astonished that instead of arguing the merits of the issues raised by the exhibition, she turned her review into a personal attack on the curator. This is a disservice to her fellow critics and writers on the Arts Desk.

The only error I can see I made is in the title of the Derek Marlowe painting – the image sheet I was sent contained no text or titles. I also asked for a catalogue but one wasn’t available. Still, that was careless of me and I will now amend. However I made copious notes, studied the work carefully and noted the text on each of the labels, which were long and unbelievably prescriptive. When writing a review one does usually spend longer writing about the work itself. But a review must also focus on how a work is presented – about arguments and interpretations put forward. And I’m afraid I was so struck by how the work was being strangled by such a prescriptive and reductive approach, that I made a decision to concentrate on that. None of what you say changes my position. You cite Boty’s outspokenness, and you say you quote her directly in your book. In which case, perhaps the curatorial voice might have retreated a little so that we could hear that voice in the exhibition – you could have quoted her directly but you don’t. In effect, you “give her a voice” by speaking for her. I wholly agree it was a male dominated environment, with a great deal of sexism, but I’m incredulous at the conclusions you reach – yes, Boty uses paint differently to Gerald Laing. But so does Blake and so does Hockney. To use that difference as the basis for concluding that Boty uses paint in a tactile way because she’s a woman is highly speculative at best. I’d say it was spurious. Who knows, perhaps Hockney uses paint (very differently from Laing we must note and very "tactile") in the way he does because he’s gay. Perhaps your next thesis should be on that. Luckily Hockney’s alive, so you can let us know what he thinks about that.

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