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November 30, 2007

Pop Art Portraits and the 1960s - Christie Davies has a flashback of all the nightmares and all the cheerful memories of the 1960s: Pop Art Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery

Posted by Christie Davies

Pop Art Portraits
National Portrait Gallery, London
11th October 2007 - 20th January 2007
Daily 10am - 6pm (Thursdays & Fridays until 9pm)

The great achievement of these Pop Art portraits is that they reveal the emptiness of celebrity and celebrities. When their photos and images originally appeared in the mass media, the dimwit consumers were taken in, almost to the point of worship. Pop Art portraits take, use and transform their photos and images in a way that reveals the celebrities lack of real worth or content.

Nowhere is this better seen than in Andy Warhol's Marylyn Monroe (Marilyn), 1967. Warhol has taken a publicity still from her film Niagara, transferred it onto a silkscreen and painted ten versions in different patterns of colour to form a two by five matrix of the old slapper, garish pink and green faces of Ms Monroe with yellow hair, a blue face on pink, more and more bizarre colour combinations and finally a grey face on black. Every colour from fauve to mauve. As soon as you see it, you recognize it and her for what it is and she was, a bundle of masks.

Everyone indulges in masking as they present themselves to others, as they live up to the appearance of their roles but we still regard them and they regard themselves as having an essential inner self. Celebrity takes that away, so that only the masks are left. Celebrity is not an addition but a subtraction. What a pity Warhol never got to paint Princess Diana after the drunken car crash in Paris in the same way that he did Monroe, after her suicide using a barbiturate enema. It was a funny way to kill oneself; it may of course not be true but mere innuendo.

Warhol also painted Two Jackies, 1962 about the woman known only as the relict of the President, and in Double Elvis, 1964, he preserved in paint as an active macho gunslinger the man who famously was to be found dead in the lavatory after straining too hard. Constipation and amphetamine is not a good combination. Marylyn, Jackie, and Elvis have become Warhol objects just like Campbell's soup cans and boxes of Brillo pads. They are all familiar objects we normally take for granted, though many of the human objects seem to have died nastily. What would it mean to say that of a soup can or a brillo pad?

Celebrities are not victims of their celebrity. They created it or were complicit in its creation; they are mere fabricated people but you have to agree to be fabricated. Monroe's contract allowed her to approve or veto all her publicity photos. She chose to be the kind of nothing she was, the raw material for Warhol's revelations. She herself complained bitterly that being a sex symbol had turned her into a thing but she did not repudiate the wealth it brought her or the advances of the compulsively lecherous, clap-ridden, drug addicted President Kennedy whose press photos are to be seen in collages in the exhibition.

While the going was good, Ms Monroe loved being the ultimate big blonde shicksa, a fusion of Eve and the apple, whose image tormented the imaginations of the frum.

Her emptiness is equally apparent in Allan D'Arcangelo's Marilyn, 1962 which has rendered her as one of those do it yourself cut out and fit together games for children. Here is a blank face marked with the places where with a Stanley knife you cut slits in order to plug in the eyebrows, eyes, nose and big, bright red and green mouth that you cut out with scissors, helpfully provided in the picture. I suppose you could always cheat and use a bit of glue the way youngsters do when building cardboard Cotswold cottages or even Mr Potato Man. The woman who took off her kit has become a kit.

The really radical portrayal of empty Marylyn is Claes Oldenburg's Ghost Wardrobe for MM, 1967. Lengths of cord hang from coat hangers on a clothes rail. They are the ghostly skeletons of her décolleté dresses and her abbreviated black knickers. The skeletons of high-heeled shoes sit on the base of this ghost-wardrobe without walls. A drawing or a statue of a real skeleton is a momento mori but this is the fading of a mere image. Alas poor Marylyn, we knew you unwell. And in the hands of the pop artists, how do you differ if at all from Betty Boop?

Warhol was equally ruthless with his own celebrity in his Self-Portrait, 1964. Dead pan expression, mechanically produced image, posed like a criminal on the FBI's most wanted list, it has something of the quality of the poster for his play Pork. Yet he has failed to efface himself; he remains the distinctive individual artist who created it, the very thing he sought to deny. We still see in his self-portraits Andrew Warhola, the well-remembered, much admired, pious Slovak Catholic who narrowly escaped assassination by a feminist and who was a friend of the would be martyr St Norman St John Stevas.

I again thought about the significance of Warhol's ideas when I saw his Orange Car Crash (orange disaster), 1963 in the exhibition The Painting of Modern Life at the Hayward Gallery until 30th December 2007. Orange Car Crash is 5 deaths, 11 times, in orange. Warhol said of his death paintings such as this:

The Death Series I did was divided into two parts: the first on famous deaths and the second on people nobody ever heard of and I thought that people should think about them sometime….people go by and it doesn't really matter to them that someone unknown was killed so I thought it would be nice for these unknown people to be remembered by those who, ordinarily, wouldn't think of them.
Here Warhol does not impose anonymity in the way he does when he deconstructs celebrity, for the anonymity is there already. Orange Disaster moves you to grief in the same way as the names on a World War I war memorial in a distant town where the men once lived. They are unknown to me and probably to almost everyone who now lives there. How can I compare my sadness at seeing a village war-memorial or an abandoned Synagogue in a Czech suburb with the total and utter indifference I felt and feel about the death of Princess Diana?

Those who felt the same way invented hundreds of excellent jokes about her car crash, which are now gaining new life from the endless, pointless public inquiries and inquests, instigated by foreign enemies of the Royal Family and carried out at the British taxpayers' expense. May God "confound their politics, frustrate their knavish tricks". God save the Queen!

A million deaths is a tragedy, the death of a celebrity is only newsprint. As an Australian joke of 1997 put it:

A ferryboat sank in Haiti today and three hundred people were drowned.

But it doesn't matter because none of them was a Princess.

Adam Smith long ago commented on people's utter indifference to the news of a very distant tragedy; it has not been changed by television whatever egotistical producers and presenters may think. Indeed I can still imagine a local paper in Scotland running once again the classic headline:
Earthquake in China. Millions dead, Peebles man slightly injured.
What the telehegemons have achieved is the manipulation of public grief at the death of a celebrity in the imaginations of those whose own lives are so lacking in interest that they have become involved as spectators in the lives of the celebrated. The identifiers are those whose relationships with others are so shallow that they invest their main feelings in the phantoms on a screen. If there had been a dip in the number of fatalities on the road in the period after the death and funeral of the People's Princess, if the massed mourners for her had made a point of ever-after driving slow and sober and not complaining about speed cameras and breath tests, then I might cease to regard them as hysterical hypocrites.

There is one portrait in the exhibition that deserves to be seen and admired for its sheer nastiness, for the vicious skill with which it transforms its subject into a monster. It is Richard Hamilton's Portrait of Hugh Gaitskell as a Famous Monster of Filmland, 1964.

In the early 1960s I saw Hugh Gaitskell as a rather heroic figure. He warned us that the EU would mean the end of a thousand years of history and fought two great battles within the Labour Party against the loony left, one against the unilateral nuclear disarmers of CND who had infiltrated his party and the other against the socialist fundamentalists whose shibboleth was Clause 4 of Labour's constitution pledging the party to nationalise the entire economy. For them the National Coal Board was the great white heat of technology hope of the future and the Post Office the place where they would invent email. Odds and ends of capitalism might be allowed to remain but "the commanding heights of the economy" were to be owned and run by the state and become commanding depths.

When I graduated in economics, I was able to pass with glory an entire exam paper by answering nothing but questions about pricing and investment decisions in the nationalised industries and writing what I now know to have been ingenious nonsense. It was only later that I learned the true distance between Milton and Keynes.

Gaitskell could see that state ownership was nonsense; not only is economics about uncertainty, so is the economy and you cannot evade uncertainty through state ownership and so-called planning nor can prices be "decided". Gaitskell could also see that "objectively" CND were on the side of the Soviets and working for the enslavement of the British people. He was righter than he knew for later on CND was hijacked by KGB agents for whom this was their main objective. One of them was a colleague of mine, a Professor of Economics at the University of Leeds, then as now a centre of authoritarian left-wing bigotry.

Hamilton hated Gaitskell for exactly the same reasons that I admired him and he overpainted an enlarged newspaper photograph of Gaitskell with a mask motif from Phantom of the Opera. Gaitskell's chin and left eye remain and it retains an unmistakeable Gaitskell feel but the right side of the face is a hard mask and it has a glass eye. The face is cropped and placed against a red background and is evil itself. You don't have to hate Gaitskell to admire this portrait, any more than you have to admire Napoleon to appreciate Ingres.

But enough of nightmares. There are many cheerful and amusing items in the exhibition, notably Mel Ramos, Hunt for the Best, 1965, a naked woman hugging a ketchup bottle. It is a parody of sexist, erotic advertising that ketches up and merges with that which it parodies. Pop art goes the weasel. Vamos con Ramos!

Here too is the B52 whose roar we all remember as the sound of freedom, shown in Colin Self's B52 Nuclear bomber and two waiting women 1963, which is more Dali landscape than portrait. How much safer we felt in those days when as Self shows elsewhere we were fiercely defended. Then we knew where Satan lived and could, as the Americans say, take him out, quite unlike today when a swarm of his sons have entered into fortress-Britain and are the unseen enemy within the gates. No wonder the British are an anxious people today, not the relaxed folk of 1963. We are anxious from the uncertainty of not knowing which of our next-door neighbours is plotting to blow us up.

In the 1960s the law kept the scourge of drugs at bay. Richard Hamilton's painting Swingeing London 1967(a) 1968-9, is based on a famous press photograph of Mick Jagger and the art dealer Robert Fraser in a police van during their trial for drug possession in 1967. The frightened young Jagger (who was in fact innocent of the particular charge) hides his face but Fraser, one more hardened old-Etonian druggie and reputedly a former gay lover of Idi Amin, peers round his hand at us, through his gangster shades.

Jagger was eventually released but Fraser served six months. It was a swingeing sentence for swinging London. If only the reactionary elements in the old establishment could have kept up this kind of punitive cultural politics, we would not be in the mess we are today.

Dr Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain, a tale of the growth of crime, illegitimacy and drug abuse as a result of Keynesian inflation and welfarism.

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Very interesting article. As G.K.Chesterton wrote in “Heretics” Chapter 8,

Every man, however wise, who begins by worshipping success, must end in mere mediocrity.

He may have been dealing with issues of his time, but his insights are more durable. And prophetic too, perhaps. Quoting from Wikipedia again:

The Flying Inn is a novel first published in 1914 by G. K. Chesterton. It is set in a future England where a super-masculine form of Islam has triumphed and now dominates the political and social life of the country. Because of this, alcohol sales are prohibited. The plot centers around the adventures of Humphrey Pump and Captain Patrick Dalroy, who roam the country in their alcohol-laden cart in an attempt to evade the Prohibition.
Posted by: Robert H. Olley at December 3, 2007 08:15 PM
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