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December 30, 2013 5:40 pm
Pauline Boty was a feisty, audacious and exceptionally promising artist, who contributed with verve to the British Pop Art movement in the 1960s. She was also until recently a neglected figure, who died aged only 28, and whose work was eclipsed by that of her (longer-lived, male) contemporaries. Pallant House’s exemplary show, Pauline Boty: Pop Artist and Woman, a transfer from Wolverhampton Art Gallery, aims to remedy that, revealing Boty’s brief yet prolific career in all its vigour.
At a time when few women artists gained the prominence accorded to men, Boty made her own singular impact alongside fellow students such as Peter Blake and David Hockney at London’s Royal College of Art. Before winning her place there in 1958, she had studied at Wimbledon School of Art. Her stubborn determination is discernible in a self-portrait made around 1955, in which the teenage artist carefully defines her own bulbous nose and large, penetrating eyes. A sense of gloom can be detected here as well, probably stemming from a difficult childhood: when Boty was only 11, her mother had been gravely afflicted by tuberculosis.
Yet Boty was precocious enough to be included in the 1957 Young Contemporaries exhibition, alongside other outstanding young women such as Bridget Riley. The difficulties facing them should not be underestimated. When Boty applied for the Royal College, she was warned that a “mere girl” would not be admitted to its prestigious school of painting. So she settled instead for a place in the school of stained glass.
Once inside the college, though, Boty quickly attracted attention. She became a founder member of the Anti-Ugly Action group, protesting against the pastiche dullness of many of the big buildings then being erected in London. “I think the Air Ministry building is a real stinker, with the Farmers’ Union HQ, the Bank of England and the Financial Times as runners up,” she told the Daily Express.
In her own art, she discovered Schwitters and began experimenting with collage. One of her works, “Untitled (Buffalo)”, devotes a large part of the picture-space to a Buffalo cigarette pack. Boty juxtaposes it with a pair of flower-garlanded dancers, who suggest her fascination with Botticelli as well. Witty, dynamic and unpredictable, her art was included along with Peter Blake’s in one of the first Pop Art shows, at the AIA Gallery in 1961. The following year Boty herself made a confident appearance in Ken Russell’s lively film Pop Goes the Easel, a portrait of the Pop Art scene. When shown as part of the BBC’s Monitor series, it won Boty and her fellow students a lot of attention.
She defined Pop Art as “a nostalgia for now”, revelling in its ability to fuse experimental modernism with wide-ranging references to the culture embraced by the emergent generation in the Swinging Sixties. Quotations from songs are deployed in the titles she chose for her pictures, such as “5-4-3-2-1”, which took its name from the theme tune for the TV pop music show Ready Steady Go! She also became increasingly preoccupied with film stars such as Marilyn Monroe, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Monica Vitti and Marcello Mastroianni, whom she described as “the 20th-century gods and goddesses”. “People need them, and the myths that surround them, because their own lives are enriched by them,” she said. Before long Boty herself began posing for photographers such as David Bailey, and appeared with self-confident poise in Vogue and other magazines; she also acted in TV plays and in films.
But tragedy was never far away from her art. Shocked by Monroe’s death in August 1962, she used a close-up photo of the actress’s smiling face, reproduced on the cover of Town magazine, as the centrepiece of a large painting called “Colour Her Gone”. It celebrates the effervescent movie star by surrounding her with a red wall of roses. Yet Monroe’s hair – blonde, like Boty’s – appears strangely shroud-like, and Boty has painted panels at either side, which threaten to converge on Monroe and erase her completely.
With hindsight, we can see Boty’s preoccupation with mortality as foreshadowing her own untimely death. Stricken by cancer, she refused chemotherapy because she was pregnant and died in 1966, just months after her daughter was born.
Perhaps her most poignant exploration of transience is another Monroe-inspired piece, “The Only Blonde in the World”, painted in 1963. The image of the actress, joyful and windblown as she rushes down a street, is taken from Some Like It Hot. But in Boty’s painting, Monroe seems almost imprisoned within a narrow vertical strip running down the canvas. She is bordered by implacable expanses of dark green paint, which, as in “Colour Her Gone”, seem likely, at any second, to obliterate her completely, while Boty emphasises Monroe’s fragility by handling her hair, face and dress in a loose, broken style. At once vivacious and vulnerable, “The Only Blonde” sums up the mixture of fun and foreboding that gives Boty’s work its resonance.
Until February 9, pallant.org.uk
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