Eduardo Paolozzi: Collaging Culture, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, UK – review

As a teenager, Eduardo Paolozzi confronted the reality of death with shocking immediacy. Born in Edinburgh in 1924, he was the son of Italian parents who had moved to Scotland and set up an ice-cream and confectionery shop. But soon after the second world war broke out, Paolozzi found himself detained under the Emergency Powers of the Enemy Aliens Act and interned for three months. His father, grandfather and uncle were all shipped off to exile in Canada, and killed when their ship was torpedoed en route. The tragedy left Paolozzi with an enduring sense of human vulnerability, and it can be detected throughout his fascinating show at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, West Sussex.

Not that the exhibition seems at all depressing. On the contrary: it is alive with the energy and inventiveness of a multi-talented man with an immense curiosity about the world around him. He revelled in drawing, sculpture, film, print-making and textile design, but this show rightly pinpoints collage as a major working process. From the late 1940s, Paolozzi – inspired partly by encounters with Brâncusi, Braque, Léger and Giacometti during a two-year stay in Paris, partly by the images of plenty in visiting GIs’ magazines – produced exhilarating pieces that anticipated Pop Art.

One 1949 collage here celebrates Coca-Cola, Kool-Aid and young love, all brought together in an image called “Refreshing and Delicious” more than a decade before Andy Warhol mined similar sources of inspiration. Another, “Real Gold”, juxtaposes a beaming pin-up with lipstick, a can of “Pure California Orange Juice” and a lissom cleaning lady who mops the glossy bonnet of a state-of-the-art automobile.

These works look forward to Richard Hamilton’s iconic 1956 Pop image, “Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?”. In 1952, both Hamilton and Paolozzi joined the Independent Group, whose members – young artists, architects and writers – would meet for rebellious discussions at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. They organised a landmark show there entitled Parallel of Life and Art, while Paolozzi gave a rapid-fire lecture on what he called his “Bunk” pieces, bombarding his audience with collages culled from US advertising and science-fiction magazines. The architect Colin St John Wilson recalled later that it was “the first time images had been shown – blam, blam, blam – with no order or link”. Mass-media imagery was being proposed, subversively, as a rich and legitimate source for avant-garde art.

There was a dark subtext to these images of plenty. Paolozzi was well aware that a lot of these desirable products, ranging from gleaming motorbikes to succulent foodstuffs, were unavailable to many in austerity-beleaguered Britain. And the threat of nuclear apocalypse was becoming increasingly salient, with the USSR testing its first atomic bomb in 1949. A year later Paolozzi made an eerie bronze head called “Mr Cruikshank”, based on a segmented scientific model made for measuring radiation penetration in the human head. Vulnerable yet resilient, “Mr Cruikshank” could almost be a self-portrait of the sculptor who made him.

Paolozzi was bent on forging a distinctive vision from the anxiety that affected so many young British sculptors emerging from the aftermath of the second world war. According to Herbert Read, who championed their work, they explored images of “excoriated flesh, frustrated sex, the geometry of fear”. But Paolozzi appeared to be fascinated by virtually every aspect of the post-war world, moving hungrily from robotic machine forms to sculptures such as “Large Frog”. Made in 1958, this battered, quasi-mechanical amphibian is balanced on four legs that taper to a Giacometti-like slenderness. Yet the body looks bulky and aggressive, boasting defensively armoured surfaces that Paolozzi made by pressing piano keys into wax.

Feeding off detritus of all kinds, Paolozzi relished the idea of incorporating found materials into prints, collages and sculpture, a process he described as the “metamorphosis of rubbish”. The aim, he said, was to transform “quite ordinary things into something wonderful and extraordinary that is neither nonsensical nor morally edifying”. Cinema also captivated him and in the early 1960s he made a 12-minute film entitled “A History of Nothing”. Screened now at Pallant House, it ranges widely and includes such witty collages as a professorial James Joyce gravely confronting a lascivious female dancer

Paolozzi even became fascinated by Wittgenstein, and set about working with the master printer Christopher Prater on a portfolio of 12 screenprints called “As Is When”. They provide the show with its most spectacular moment. Like Wittgenstein, Paolozzi saw himself as an outsider, and the philosopher’s theory of language games – language envisaged simply as a form of human activity, not making rigorous claims to “truth” – nourished the obsession with high art and mass culture that runs through this invigorating exhibition.

Until October 13,

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