The catalysts of Pop Art and escaping pre-war artistic tradition
First evolving in the UK in the mid-1950s, and emerging fully in the UK and US over the next decade, pop art optimistically idolised and iconised popular culture and the kitsch. It challenged the notions of traditional pre-war art, shifting ideas on what art subjects could be, how artistic ideas could be communicated, and even whether art had to be about unique original artworks, or could be a mass produced art print.
Artists as far back as Jean-Charles Pellerin in the late 1700s played with bright, simple aesthetics to create a more popular art that people outside of the Paris and London art galleries could admire. Picasso took that a step further, appearing to comment on consumerism in his 1913 artwork Au Bon Marche; a cubist collage of department store labels and advertising materials. Another decade on, a brief “Proto-Pop” movement saw American artists like Patrick Henry Bruce and Charles Demuth featuring commercial products and advertising design in their work, but the thing that really began to bring it all together was Dada.
Where pop art uses an optimistic and even naiive embrace of present and future to challenge what art is, Dada was born from war. It’s catalysing thought was the idea that any society which created the horror of the World War must be torn up and re-imagined; including the art of that society.
The post war influence in Dada and re-imagining art
Dada was anti-art and anti-bourgeois, it equated high art with nightmarish results and iconised banal everyday objects instead, playing with satire, surrealism, absurdism and nonsense. Movements like abstract expressionism, futurism, and cubism were also being widely explored, all with similar intentions of reinventing art. All of them broke down conventions of form, expression and style, but remained focused on serious minded or even traditional subjects, concepts, and ideas.
The Dada artists wanted to change everything; there would be no studies of nudes or historical events or of emotion-driven action paintings; there would be a urinal called Fountain, a mechanical head with tape measures screwed to it, the Mona Lisa with a moustache scribbled on her face, or, a shovel.
It was anarchic, seeking to destroy the notions of value and culture that elitist art gallery traditionalists held dear, but as the rawness of war began to fade, and culture as a whole began to look to optimistic ideas like an American Dream, Dada didn’t quite fit the evolving spirit of the time, but had some interesting ideas in directing attention towards mundane, everyday objects and presenting them as original artwork.
The trans-Atlantic birth of the pop art movement
In London in 1952 a community of artists, The Independent Group, formed to share a fascination with the emerging popular culture of American advertising, comic books, science fiction, and aspirational technology. Europe was still rebuilding from war, rationing had only recently ended in the UK, and the bright optimism coming from the US was both welcome, and fascinating.
One of the founding members of the group, Eduardo Paolozzi, had been experimenting with collages made from magazine ads and product packaging. Numerous discussions with another group member, Richard Hamilton, led to the 1956 collage Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? Hamilton wasn’t the first to encapsulate the ideas of pop into a single piece, but it was the first piece to find widespread notice, and is often described as the first pop art artwork.
Collage was a popular form in Dada as well, and at the time this emerging movement was sometimes referred to as neo-Dada. But where Dada featured mundane objects to reject high art, pop artists featured the mass-market and mass-produced because it found fascination with the simplicity and optimism popular culture was embracing; the powerful consumerist symbolism of the product logo or celebrity face.
Art could be reinvented, and new cultural ideals explored, in the very style, colour, and content of the culture itself. Pop art had found itself, but what would it do as a movement?