Whitechapel Gallery, 6th April 2017
I guess most Londoners will be familiar with Eduardo Paolozzi’s work from his monumental public sculptures such as Newton outside the British Library, The Head of Invention outside the gorgeous new Design Museum, a Vulcan on Royal Victoria Dock and the mosaics now restored to Tottenham Court Road station. These works represent perhaps the apogee of his oeuvre but this retrospective is an ideal insight into the works that lead up to this and into the themes with which he was preoccupied.
Mr Paolozzi was a big fella judging by the photos and looked more like a shipbuilder to me than an artist. So these glorious man-machine sculptures that he left us to enjoy somehow seem appropriate. But the exhibition also shows a much more delicate hand at work.
He is considered one of pop art’s pioneers. The slide show that appears early in the exhibition (the Bunk Show), with its collage of consumerist images culled from popular print media, understandably initially baffled its audience. This was the early 1950’s – manly, artistic blokes were supposed to be aggressively sluicing industrial quantities of paint onto vast canvasses, not cutting out adverts from magazines. But clearly our man was ahead of the curve. Moreover the obsession Mr P had with colour and line, toys and especially robots, and indeed the future generally was clear from the off. The early works also include a number of simply beautiful sculptures, not just in bronze, which show off the trademark human forms made up of bits of machine like Leonardo had just gone apesh*t in the toolshed. The influence of the likes of Giacometti, Arp, Brancusi and Leger (especially) is clear – Mr P was in Paris in the 1950s. And plainly there is a clear link back to cubism in his sculpture especially.
We then move to a dazzling array of collages, screen-prints, textiles and even fashions (with some trusted collaborators notably through Hammer Prints and with JG Ballard) made up of bold colours assembled in intricate designs (the mosaics at Tottenham Court Road will give you the idea). This experimentation with media, material and image through construction and deconstruction continues upstairs. I confess that the prints, collages and textiles are less vital to my eyes than the sculpture but, even so, the effect of so many works (250 odd) is compelling.
He taught, he wrote, he inspired, he was a proper European (born in Scotland of Italian parents, worked in France and Germany as well as UK), he was knighted and he gave most of his work away to us. He ploughed his furrow, was a bit on the scatty side and didn’t really fit in with the kaleidoscope of artistic movements in the second half of the C20 (indeed there are a couple of works here that amusingly take the p*ss out of his more earnest contemporaries).
But his work is just really easy to like. In everything there is a sense of a child at play – which for me is always a good sign in modern art – and I smiled a lot. You could say, at the end of the day, that all this collaging was a bit one-dimensional but I think that is sniffily unfair. And yes the output was a bit variable. And maybe the later works are a touch self-regarding but isn’t that the way with most “popular” artists. But it doesn’t hurt your head or try to wind you up. And it does cheer you up.
So get yourself along to this. Whitechapel Gallery is usefully open late on a Thursday and is obviously perfectly placed for a spot of grub thereafter. There are still a couple of weeks left to go.