Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Roy Lichtenstein, 'Drowning Girl' and 'In the Car', (1963)

This week I have chosen to look at Roy Lichtenstein, a leading figure in the American Pop Art movement of the mid-twentieth century. Born in Manhattan in 1923, Lichtenstein's most famous work drew heavy inspiration from comic book panels - artwork that had been heavily condescended by the art world previously (arguably, this has yet to change.) His paintings often present "archetypal images of contemporary America, simultaneously glamorous, mundane, dramatic and impersonal" (1) Lichtenstein's recognisable images often fell into two categories; women (failing love) and war, reflections of his own tumultuous personal life.

Perhaps controversially, in many of his paintings Lichtenstein directly copied his original source material, such as comic book panels and advertisement cartoons. Both his 'Drowning Girl' and 'In the Car' paintings - both completed in 1963 - were images lifted directly from scenes in the comic books (originals: 'Drowning Girl': "Run for Love!", DC Comics, 1962; 'In the Car': "Girl's Romances", unknown year.) In his paintings, Lichtenstein makes minor adjustments - obviously his work is not an identical copy, in that he's redrawn them - such as hair colour, characters' names, framing etc., however he does keep the text in the speech bubbles/balloons identical in almost every image. This copying has led to much criticism of Lichtenstein's work, with many art critics claiming they lack originality, plagiarise others' work and give no credit at all to the original artists.

Here are 'Drowning Girl' and 'In the Car' alongside their original sources (taken from David Barsalou's website, 'Deconstructing Lichtenstein' ):

I've chosen 'Drowning Girl' because it is a great example of the way Lichtenstein made changes to his original source. In the original image, the girl is part of a larger panel, above her on a boat is the comic's hero, 'Mal', calling out to her. In his re-imagining of the panel, Lichtenstein has cropped the image so it frames only the girl surrounded by water - you can see the changes he made to the texture of the waves (influenced and adapted by Lichtenstein's own admission from Hakusai's famous Japanese painting "Great Wave off Kanagawa" - "I saw the resemblance and then I pushed it a little further... I don’t think it’s terribly significant, but it’s a way of crystallizing the style by exaggeration.") Also evident is the alteration of the name in the thought bubble above the girl's head - in the original comic book the hero's name is Mal, a name that Lichtenstein felt was too negative in its connotations, perhaps implying that their love would never had lasted very long. Lichtenstein's change of Mal to the nifty all-American name, 'Brad' would change the panel's slightly, implying that the girl is making a regrettable mistake in not allowing him to save her.

During the exact years that Lichtenstein created his comic book inspired work, he was experiencing turmoil in his own relationship. Seperated from his wife in 1961 and divorced in 1965, Lichtenstein's female subjects are often depicted in moments of distress or unease, a reflection of his anger and emotional state. One of the most telling paintings that highlight this is 'In the Car'. Painted in 1963, 'In the Car' is a copy of a comic panel that differs from the original in colour and perhaps slightly in framing, but most noticeably in the removal of a thought bubble which read "I vowed to myself I would not miss my appointment - That I would no go riding with him - Yet before I knew it..." The painting portrays a handsome couple sharing "a moment of chilly silence" (2) in their car.

Lichtenstein's enlargement of comic books and advertisements in his work "emphasised the banality and emptiness of his motifs as an equivalent to the impersonal, mechanized style of drawing." (3) Arguably this might be read as Lichtenstein's criticism of modern America - his archetypally beautiful American characters, the bold, pop, unrealistic colours of his art, all reflections of the meaningless, phony atmosphere that he saw America as.

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