Sunday, 25 February 2018

Pauline Boty

... She unearthed an old red hardback catalogue in an art shop...

It was of an exhibition a few years ago. Pauline Boty, 1960s Pop Art painter.

Pauline, who?

A female British Pop Art painter?


This was interesting to Elisabeth, who'd been studying art history as one of her subjects at college and had been having an argument with her tutor, who'd told her that categorically there had never been such a thing as a female British Pop artist, not one of any worth, which is why there were none recorded as more than footnotes in British Pop Art history.

The artist had made collages, paintings, stained glass work and stage sets. She had had quite a life story. She'd not just been a painter, she'd also done theatre and TV work as an actress, had chaperoned Bob Dylan round London before anyone'd heard of Bob Dylan, had been on the radio telling listeners what it was like to be a young woman in the world right then and had nearly been cast in a film in a role that Julie Christie got instead. 

She'd had everything ahead of her in swinging London, and then she'd died, at the age of twenty eight, of cancer...

It was a sad story, and nothing like the paintings, which were so witty and joyous and full of unexpected colour and juxtapositions that Elisabeth, flicking through the catalogue realised that she was smiling...

The painter's last painting had been of a huge and beautiful female arse, nothing else, framed by a jovial proscenium arch like it was filling the whole stage of a theatre. Underneath, in bright red, was a word in huge and rambunctious looking capitals,


Elisabeth laughed out loud.

What a way to go... (Autumn, Ali Smith)

I finished Ali Smith's novel Autumn a few weeks ago. I was totally engrossed with this novel that explores what  time is, and how we experience it.  Pauline Boty, a founding figure in British pop art, recurs through the novel, as a symbol of all those who are 'Ignored. Lost. Rediscovered years later. Then ignored. Lost. Rediscovered again years later. Then ignored. Lost. Rediscovered ad infinitum'.

I knew about Boty's work, but after I finished the novel, I decided to find out more about the artist and her pioneering work. This post is the result of my research.

Boty was a stellar figure of the London art scene in the 1060s; a visual artist who also acted on stage and screen and who associated with the leading lights of a new generation of artists, many of whom went on to become household names. Like many of the women of Pop, Boty was marginalised, if not excluded from the mainstream of the histories of Pop Art. It is extraordinary that the exhibition of her work at Wolverhampton Art Gallery in 2013, was the first occasion that Boty's work has been presented in a public funded gallery.

Pop Art brought the colourful, dynamic imagery of low, mass culture - advertising, pin-ups, movies, comics, pop music, domestic consumables - into the hallowed halls of the art gallery. It was very accessible. It quickly became popular with a wide audience and found success on the art market. Boty described Pop as 'a nostalgia for now' and used its visual language to give form to the yearnings and pleasures of the female pop 'fan'. A friend recalls how she set out, 'to re-establish the kind of woman one could be', and refused to relinquish either her serious intent as an artist or her right to a proactive sexual identity. She was also a political radical and had a prophetic grasp of gender politics. A critique of the workings of mass culture and of gender inequality runs throughout her work. She brought a gendered awareness to events like the Cuba crisis, the Profumo Affair, American race riots and the assassination of J.F. Kennedy.

Like many other Pop artists, Boty explored the way experience is mediated through the pervasive cacophony of mass communications. Again, like many other Pop artists, Boty was concerned with sex, but her interest was not in the pin-ups, 'sexual for men', but in finding form for a liberated, energised, autonomous female sexuality. This speaks to current concerns about the effects of a pornified culture on women who lose touch with their own feelings and desires, and act out expectations formed in the sea of readily available pornographic imagery.

Untitled (Self-Portrait), 1955, (oil on sketching paper)

Anna, 1955, (ink and watercolour on paper)

Untitled (Girl in Bath), 1957, (watercolour on paper)

Sheba before Solomon, 1960, (digital reconstruction of Boty's stained glass) 

This stained glass piece was accepted for an Arts Council touring exhibition.

Sheba was an interesting choice of subject: the original biblical text tells of a meeting of equals between Solomon, famed for his wisdom, and Sheba, a rich and powerful queen, which is how she appears in Boty's richly colourful stained glass. However, over the centuries Jewish and Muslim writers transformed Sheba from a clever, political astute sovereign to a demonic force threatening the boundaries of gender. Sheba has entered Western culture as a seductress with a powerful and treacherous sexuality. Boty wanted to occupy an autonomous sexuality as an equal to the men in her life but was also painfully aware that too often, it was only her sexuality that was seen.

In Boty's depiction Sheba is surrounded by her retinue, a phalanx of elephants, peacocks and golden fruit, her upright stance, with arms tucked in and legs together, produces a phallic form within the vaginal or womb-like oval of the dark blue biblical text and decorative elements behind her. This is a juxtaposition of forms that will appear again in later work.

Untitled (after Delaunay), 1960, (gouache on paper)

Programme design for Day of the Prince, Royal Court Theatre, 1963 

A Big Hand, 1960-61, (collage with gold paint)

A Big Hand, was 'a kind of premonition. You are suspended in time'. A huge female hand (cut from an advert) set against a gold sky, toys with Baroque muscle-bound male figures taken from an image of the Tivoli fountain in Rome. Below all is quiet order as Victorian figures stroll in a park in front of arcaded buildings with minarets - but 'you don't know whether everything's going to fall down, everyone's going to be crushed or killed'. She aimed to capture an aspect of dreams when 'something very extraordinary is actually happening, yet everyone isn't taking any notice at all'.

Gershwin, 1961, (oil on board)

Gershwin, with its luscious colours and with a confident bravado, echoes the shapes and rhythms of the extravagant, mass cultural musicals of the 30s that Both enjoyed immensely. She was the painting as a very direct, felt response to the romantic appeal of the films in which 'you must lose yourself... I'm so involved with them at the moment that perhaps I can't even say what I am trying to do. To be vital, I suppose'.

Theatre design for the Balcony by Jean Genet, Act 1, Scene 1, 1961, (collage and gouache)

The Only Blonde in the World, 1963, (oil on canvas)

Epitaph to Something's Gotta Give, 1962, (oil on hardboard)

Colour Her Gone, 1962, (oil on hardboard)

With Love to Jean-Paul Belmondo, 1962, (oil on canvas)

5-4-3-2-1, 1963, (oil on canvas)

Pauline Boty holding Scandal '63, 1963

It's a Man's World I, 1964, (oil on canvas with collage)

In the central part of the painting Boty has gathered images of men she admired, desired or enjoyed. The intellectual, Proust, is joined by the sexy and glamorous: Elvis, the Beatles, the matador known as El Beatle. The strong and idealised, Muhammad Ali and a classical head, come with slogans: 'I am the greatest', and 'The Creative adventure', Federico Fellini, with his male star, Marcello Mastroianni, reflect her passion for film. Above and below these 'heroes' are images of male power and violence. Against a blue sky a B-52 bomber, designed to carry nuclear weapons as part of the West's Cold War strategy of deterrence, flies over grand palaces and sweeping lawns. Below the shocking stupidity of Kennedy's assassination is bracketed, ironically, by the intellectual genius of Einstein and Lenin's revolutionary fervour for a better world.

This painting switches between levels of representation with assurance. Boty's emblematic red rose is set among her heroes, its clitoral bud is prominent at the centre of the petals.

It's a Man's World II, 1964-65, (oil on canvas)

Having appropriated nudes from soft porn and the life class, Boty equates 'high' and 'low' culture's treatment of women in this painted collage set against the deep blue sky of an 18th century landscaped estate. The central figure, pale and static, arms hanging by her sides; the pubic hair is placed at the very centre of the composition, as if this is the point for the men who, as Boty told Nell Dunn, often just want sex. Headless, the figure is rendered anonymous, defined by her sexual 'parts'. All the figures are boxed in a phallic, upright enclosure at the centre of the painting, surrounded by and trapped in the sculpted hills and classical buildings 'of the man's' land.

At the time, before the impact of second-wave feminism, there was no resonance for the painting's message.

Countdown to Violence, 1964, (oil on canvas)

Weaving political awareness with a gendered critique whilst using the visual language of Pop, the painting reflects on American political events of 1963 and the tragedy of male violence. Within an arch (the world as a stage) and on the blue background she used for male protagonists, the stark numerals, stripped to basic block forms, count down, to the ground zero of male violence. A coffin wrapped in the stars and stripes lies on a funeral carriage beneath the portraits of not only Kennedy, assassinated just the previous year, but also Abraham Lincoln, suggesting a heritage of violence. Tucked behind, on the left, is a swirl of vivid colour. Concentric ovals on a rectangular base quote her own earlier abstracts inspired by the patterns of 30s Hollywood musicals; now only a memory of pleasure and pushed to the background. In the foreground Boty reproduces two deeply shocking media images that were to become seared on public memory: the self immolation of a Buddhist monk in Vietnam and police brutality during the race riots in Alabama, USA.

BUM, 1966, (oil on canvas).


Ali Smith, Autumn
Sue Tate, Pauline Boty
Various articles from the internet


  1. Isn't she an interesting character? Would you feel able to also put this post onto the reading group blog along with my bit on the references in Autumn which I used for my introduction on the discussion evening? If yes, then I can email you the email address and password if you let me know by email? Hope so, it would be fascinating beside the book thoughts. A x Hope you are feeling better x

  2. Thanks for this. I'd heard of Boty but knew nothing about her work. I think I have to read the book now!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Celia. I'm sure you'll enjoy the book. As for Boty, wonderful paintings, indeed. I hope that now she gets the recognition she deserves.