A poptastic look back at the past

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Allen Jones, painter, print-maker and sculptor, is now 70, and his work is celebrated in three London exhibitions: at the Royal Academy, his choice of watercolours from his own collection; at his dealer’s gallery, Alan Cristea, works in various media of the past few years; and at Tate Britain a small, spectacular display centred on two huge new paintings. Together they amount to a revealing study of the artist and his work – formally and imaginatively adventurous, mischievous, consistent.

He is one of the artists from the Royal College who leapt to stardom in the early 1960s under the Pop Art banner. His first inclinations were towards graphic art, and he remains in essence as graphic as ever, with his swift, incisive line, his bright, sharp palette, an often flattened pictorial space, and his tricks of modelling or simplifying the human form, both male and female. And much of his imagery, which won him an enduring notoriety, often drew on that tradition of illustration found in American fetishist magazines of the 1940s and 1950s.

Pop Art was predicated on the popular – on advertising, packaging, publicity, celebrity. So is his endless skirmishing of the sexes anything exclusive to Pop Art? Is a fashion show, or music hall turn, or any girl in basque and tights, narrowly a Pop Art subject? If Jones is still a Pop Artist it can only be not by what he represents, but by what he does with it. Do his flat, bright colours, his graphic wit, his seductive line, his formal jokes, together make him a Pop Artist still? Perhaps.

What he undoubtedly is is a narrative artist: for all the female glories on mouth-watering display, his truer subject is the essential susceptibility of men. He may make much play with one feminine stereotype – all high heels, long legs and pneumatic breasts – yet this is a woman who is always in control. The feminists who condemned Jones long ago as a sort of pornographer always missed the point. The subtext may well be one of exploitation but it is the men who, here at least, seem to be the exploited.

Each of these shows makes the point, while joining in what is in effect an overview of his productive late career. The Royal Academy show, ranging back to the early 1980s, includes drawings and studies that offer a fascinating insight into Jones’s method, the radical formal liberties he takes with the image and the freedom and scope of the final statement. His command of watercolour itself is shown by the pianist overwhelmed by a disembodied pair of scarlet legs; two dancers entwined, she sulfureuse in her bronze bikini, he in shattered schematic pieces.

Alan Cristea also shows a number of these large watercolours, of dancers again, and a related suite of true lithographs, “Between the Sheets”, made in the old way, on the stone. Another suite, “Letters I-XII”, is more experimental, reducing a determining figurative study to a calligraphic ideogram in a quasi-oriental way. But six large oil paintings are the heart of it, set on the theme of the music hall illusionist.

The Tate shows the two largest paintings, both completed this year, along with related studies and three paintings from the 1960s, to show just how far he has come while remaining entirely himself. One, a canvas some 20 feet long, takes as its subject that modern theatre, the fashion show, following the models coolly flaunting themselves in the catwalk world of flashbulbs. It is all here, in these shows: performance, theatre, a knowing and ironical interplay between man and woman, and an astonishing abstract command of space and light and form.

‘Allen Jones RA: Watercolours’, Royal Academy, London, to February 2. Tel +44 020 7300 8000

‘Allen Jones: Between the Sheets’, Alan Cristea Gallery, London, November 26 to December 22. Tel +44 020 7439 1866

‘Allen Jones’, Tate Britain, London, to February 10. Tel +44 020 7887 8888

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