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

Thursday 22 February 2018

Face Forward ...

Face Forward ... 

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, (EMST) Athens.

Face Forward... is an ambitious and  thought-provoking, interactive art project focused on the stories of people who have been forced to leave their homelands and are rebuilding their life in Greece.  The project was proposed by EMST and supported by the UK Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Twenty refugees took part in the programme. As part of the project, the participants were introduced to artworks from the Museum's collection as incentives for discussion. Some were art lovers, some were being introduced to modern art for the first time. Through this process, a series of personal narratives emerged, all very different, but with a common need to communicate. The outcome of  many months of interaction and communication, as well as the refugees'  contact with works of art from the EMST collection, is this exhibition of photographic portraits and personal narratives.

The organisers wanted to move beyond the image of refugees' lives projected in the media as one of hardship, cruelty and despair. Instead, we are invited to see each refugee as an individual, full of  hopes for their future.  The aim is to cultivate solidarity, acceptance and social cohesion. Furthermore, the notion put forward by Alma Wittlin in 1970 that 'museums are not islands in space, but have to be considered in the context of life outside their walls', was at the centre of this project.

There were a number of school groups visiting the exhibition when we were there. I listened in on this particular group for a while: having looked at the exhibition, each member had to 'introduce' one of the refugees featured in the photographs and catalogue, detailing their life in their home country, their voyage to Greece, and their hopes and aspirations.

This is an ambitious project and one that I found fascinating and extremely touching. I also found the idea of using art as triggers for discussion an excellent one.

The art works:

Janine Anton, Slumber, 1994, (maple loom, wool yarn, bed, nightgown, blanket, artist's REM reading on computer paper, REM decoder)

Kostis Velonis, Swedish Flying Carpet, 2001, (wood, fringe)

Bill Viola, The Raft, 2004, (video, sound installation)

Alexandros Georgiou, Athens, Parthenon, 2007-08, (mixed media on photograph)

Yael Kanarek, Heart in Heart, 2004, (sheer organza ribbon, two metal meat hooks, aircraft cable)

Vlassis Caniaris, Hopscotch, 1974, (6 human figures, 9 suitcases, 1 cage, tar paper base and hopscotch chalk drawing)

Kimsooja, Bottari, 2005-17, (6 bottari made from traditional Korean bed covers and used clothes from Athens and Kassel)

Bia Davou, Sails, 1981-82, (fabric, ink)

Do-Ho Suh, Staircase II, 2004, (translucent nylon)

Costas Tsoclis, Portraits, 1986, (5 video projections in colour on 5 paintings with acrylic on cloth)

Mona Hatoum, Fix It, 2004, (factory fixtures and furnishings, light bulbs, programmable lighting equipment, electric cable, amplifier, mixer, 2 speakers)

The people:

As one would expect, the majority of the people who took part in the project are from Syria and most are men. I have tried to use a sample that is representative of those involved.

Ali, (40 years old), Syria

When I was informed about the Museum's programme, I was not sure I wanted to participate. I had never been to a museum and had never visited an exhibition. But something made me go to the first meeting and then to take the decision to take part...

Of the projects we saw in the Museum I was moved the most by Hopscotch by Vlassis Caniaris. I think that the work expresses all refugees. Personally, it reminded me of how I felt as soon as I arrived in Turkey. I did not know anyone, or the language and I did not know what to do, where to start and how to go on. My suitcase was the only object I could lie down on, rest and think for a while.

I identified with the man sitting on his suitcase, who looks as if he was tortured by the decision he had to take, by the dilemma of whether he should stay in his homeland or leave. I experienced this dilemma too. Deciding to leave was not easy for me. I had my doubts. I had to leave my wife and two daughters behind. This doubt still exists deep inside. Even now, I sometimes think I shouldn't have left them. But if my one hand was burdened by the concern for my wife and children, preventing me from leaving, the other hand was pulled by the need not to take part in such a war. I dislike violence. I do not want to hold a weapon. I do not want to harm anyone. I do not like blood. I want to live a peaceful and safe life with my family.

What worries me the most is that two years have passed since I left Syria and I haven't yet managed to do anything for my family, to be able to bring my wife and daughters here...

The last month and a half I've been living in a building, in a room of my own. I'm very happy that it has a balcony where I can sit and relax... You see, back in Syria I used to take my coffee on the terrace... On my balcony in Athens I have the opportunity to continue this favourite habit I have from home...

Maya, (26 years old), Tunisia

... I avoided going out in Tunisia because it was too dangerous.... I identified with the harpooned fish in Costas Tsoclis' artwork. For me, the people around the fish were like the members of my family, who ignored me. I was right there, but they couldn't see that I was suffering, that I wasn't comfortable with who I was and that I wanted to be something else. I wanted to live as a woman. That's why it was dangerous for me to walk down the street in my country. I had to hide who I was. I could only be myself when I worked on the stage. I have a mark on my body, just like the harpooned fish does, a scar from the time I was attacked on the street. But, in the end, the mental trauma it left was even bigger. It may not show, but I feel it inside me all the time. Maybe Tsoclis' work is talking about mental trauma. ..

In Alexandros Georgiou's work I could see cigarette butts, empty packets of medicine, and other garbage lying about. It could be a place that was destroyed in some war. At first I could not understand what this black and white environment had to do with the Parthenon, which is tinted gold. I thought maybe the work was talking about life itself, how anything can be destroyed unless it's very strong. And symbols which have lasted throughout the ages are very strong; they're the culture and values we've inherited from the past. When we come into contact with these values, we become stronger. That's why he made the Parthenon gold; to show that it's something of value...

Mahdi, (student), Iran

... One of the works we saw at the Museum which made a big impression on me was the Swedish Flying Carpet by Kostas Velonis. Its waves reminded me of a seagull, flying to leave a country where it's cold to go to one where it is warm. Just like I wanted to leave my country. That's what I kept saying - I want to leave - because I didn't like the situation there. I wasn't safe. And in the end, I managed to get away...

We played hopscotch in Iran too. In this artwork [Vlassi Caniaris] each square shows something a refugee has to go through when he gets to a foreign country. He waits for his papers and goes from office to office, to different agencies, and waits until the whole process is finished and he can stay there legally. There are a lot of people coming to Greece from a lot of different countries. ...

I liked Costas Tsoclis' work with the fish a lot. The fish has lost its freedom. I wouldn't like to be in its place, no way. If each painting of this artist shows a different country, then mine is the one with the harpoon in it. And because I didn't want to see all the awful things that were happening there, I wanted to go to a country which is at peace. Like the people in the paintings next to the fish, who are leaving to go to another country without looking at the fish. One of those people could be me, someone who doesn't want to live in a country that's being bombed...

Patricia, (34 years old), Cameroon

... Although I had never visited a museum before and I had no previous contact with art, the projects and the discussions at the Museum created strong emotions and gave me the opportunity to focus on issues that concern me a lot. I kept thinking about them even after I got home. I saw in them pieces of myself, pieces of my life...

Kimsoja's Bottari reminded me of the boats we all started out in when we left Turkey for Greece. The Raft by Bill Viola brought to mind the time we got ashore; we left the inflatable and were so happy we all cried. It is a very powerful feeling, hard to describe. It is important when you become aware of your own existence and how close to death you can be at any moment. But once we set foot on land, we had already our first victory - a victory over death. I saw something like that happening in Viola's work, when all these different people, who were standing together in the same space, were suddenly hit by a jet of water. I saw it as a divine intervention, a threat, a shock sent by God, after which the people realised they needed to come together to better face danger. We, too, faced this danger in the boat in the rough sea, when we all tried to save ourselves.

What we experienced was a transition from dark to light. This is what Mona Hatoum's work Fix It, made me think. Light always symbolises life, regeneration. When light lights up this space, with the old, rusty objects, it resembles the moment you turn back to light, you find yourself after a deeply thoughtful or difficult phase of your life when you have sunk in the dark.

But the work that influenced me most is Heart in Heart by Yael Kanarek, which looks like a wedding dress hanging from hooks. There is something hard and violent about it, far from gentle, cheerful and pleasant. When I learned that the love letters of two people living apart from each other are written on the ribbons, my thoughts immediately travelled to my relationship, to my girlfriend who stayed back. It is the first time I've had a relationship from a distance, and I can see how painful it is. We think about each other, we communicate through social media. But as time goes by, I feel despair, because I see that, there can be no relationship....

Although thinking about all this made me cry, in the end I felt positive. I was even keener to work, earn money and be able to go for a few days to see my girlfriend and then return to Greece...

Wednesday 21 February 2018

The surface as origin, the concept as foresight - Nausica Pastra

Nausica Pastra - The surface as origin, the concept as foresight, at Kalfayan Galleries, Athens.

Nausica Pastra is a Greek artist who lives and works in Paris, Athens and Thessaloniki.

Rhythms - Relationships, 1990 (pencil on paper)

Analogiques 3, 1982, (painted wood)

Synectron-square-circle, 1968-76

Sphere I, 1980, (wood)

Sphere II, 1977, (metal)

Analogiques, 10, (painted wood)