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Roy Lichtenstein,
a Pop Art tour de force

Roy Lichtenstein is above all known for his large format, comic-book inspired paintings: close portraits of distressed women or battle-ready men that toy with gender stereotypes. Works like “Secret Hearts”, “Girl’s Romances” and “Men at War” caricature high emotion by outsized works that push the 1950s comic book genre to its limits.

“Roy Lichtenstein took over comic book frames, reworked the colours and the position of the subjects’ hands, rewrote their texts,” explains show curator Camille Morineau.

Left: M-Maybe, 1965 - Oil and Magna on canvas – 152.4 x 152.4 cm - Museum Ludwig, Cologne - © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein New York / ADAGP, Paris, 2013
Right: Torpedo… LOS!, 1963 - Oil and Magna on canvas - Collection Simonyi

But the work of Roy Lichtenstein goes beyond refashioning comic strips. Paris’ National Museum of Modern Art at the Pompidou Centre offers a chronological journey through the Pop Art artist’s career, with more than one unexpected twist.

“Composition 1”, a giant notebook cover from 1964 and a portrait of America’s first president George Washington from 1962 offer a glimpse at the Lichtenstein’s early artistic search.

“In the 1960s, it was a real novelty to represent objects without adding any artistic value or putting them into perspective,” notes curator Morineau.

Left: Compositions 1, 1964 - Oil and Magna on canvas
Right: George Washington, 1962 - Oil and Magna on canvas - Collection of Jean-Christophe Castelli, New York

Like his pop-art contemporaries, Lichtenstein became obsessed with the disappearance of craftsmanship and the emerging industrial production of everyday objects. Although some of his early work features subdued images in black and white, he would soon adopt bright yellow and bold blue hues that would typify his work.

He also explored several different media and forms, including printmaking, sculpture and porcelain work, as in “Hot Dog” from 1964.

Hot Dog, 1964 - Porcelain enamel on steel – Bought by the Centre Pompidou in 1989 - © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein New York / ADAGP, Paris, 2013

Lichtenstein’s technique was more complex than it first appears. He often began by copying an image he found in a magazine or a comic strip. He would then stretch, rotate and fill it with his own shapes or colours. Through these transformations, the image lost its original message. Lichtenstein liked to say the resulting image had acquired a “classical” look.

Sunrise, 1965 - Oil and Magna on canvas – 9.4 x 172.7 cm – Private collection - © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein New York / ADAGP, Paris, 2013

Lichtenstein enjoyed the comic book’s ability to freeze a powerful moment – a sigh or an explosion, for example. A star-like figure was often used in comic books to illustrate an explosion. He tried to destroy this convention by representing the same explosion in porcelain, making the ephemeral explosion something concrete and permanent.

Left: Whaam!, 1963 - Oil and Magna on canvas on two panels: 172.7 x 203.2 cm each - Tate - © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein New York / ADAGP, Paris, 2013
Right: Small Explosion (Desk Explosion), 1965 - Porcelain enamel on steel, wooden base - 54 x 40.6 x 15.2 cm – Private collection - © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein New York / ADAGP, Paris, 2013

For its retrospective, the Centre Pompidou gathered a significant number of Lichtenstein’s sculptures. Pieces like “Lamp II” and “Blond” also feature his fascination with comic book codes.

Left: Lamp II, 1977 – Painted bronze – 219.1 x 70.2 x 44.8 cm – Personal collection - © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein New York / ADAGP, Paris, 2013
Right: Blond, 1965 –Ceramic, paint – 38.1 x 21 x 20.3 cm - Museum Ludwig, Cologne

Lichtenstein’s exceptional knowledge of art history is also reflected in his work. Paintings like “Brushstrokes” and “Fishing village” are clear nods to the abstract expressionism of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. But even as he paid homage to his contemporary art predecessors, Lichtenstein gave them the “comic-book treatment” as is evident in the Ben-Day dots in “Brushstrokes” and diagonal stripes in “Fishing Village”.

Left: Brushstrokes, 1965 Oil and Magna on canvas – 122.5 x 122.5 cm – Personal collection - © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein New York / ADAGP, Paris, 2013
Right: Fishing Village, 1987 - Oil and Magna on canvas - Courtesy of Fondation Carmignac

Lichtenstein constantly delved into the history of art to find inspiration. He found it in the Rouen Cathedrals of Claude Monet and the Goldfish paintings of Henri Matisse, masters who shared Lichtenstein’s obsession with repetition.

Left: Rouen Cathedral, Set 5, 1969 - Oil and Magna on canvas - San Francisco Museum of Modern Art –Gift of Harry W. and Mary Margaret Anderson
Right: Still Life with Goldfish, 1972 - Oil and Magna on canvas – 132.1 x 106.7cm – Private collection - © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein New York / ADAGP, Paris, 2013

Lichtenstein acknowledged his passion for Henri Matisse’s compositions wholeheartedly by imitating the Frenchman’s famous paintings of his own workspace, as in the “Artist’s Studio” paintings.

Like Matisse, Lichtenstein also cites his own artwork in his compositions. In the 1973 painting “Artist’s Studio” he frames his very first Pop Art painting “Hey Mickey” from 1961, in which the subjects are Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck on a fishing trip.

Left: Look Mickey, 1961 – Oil on canvas – 121.9 x 175. cm - National Gallery of Art, Washington - © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein New York / ADAGP, Paris, 2013
Right: Artist’s Studio “Look Mickey”, 1973 - Oil, Magna and sand with aluminium powder on canvas - Walker Art Center, Minneapolis – Gift of Judy and Kenneth Dayton, and the T.B. Walker Foundation, 1981

As time went on, Lichtenstein opened his work to various new influences, but never renounced the Pop Art codes or the Ben-Day dots that had become his signature.

He painted female nudes evocative of those by Pablo Picasso, but in tune with his own standards. In “Nudes with Beach Ball”, the scene is stripped of eroticism, giving it a look that can be described as both classic and kitsch. As for the dots, they no longer suggest volume on the subjects’ bodies, but move about the composition freely.

He also explored classic Chinese forms and subjects. In “Landscape with Philosopher” he surrenders the canvas to nature and plays with light and shadow variations to give the painting an unmistakable Asian feel. One could also say that Lichtenstein has finally “surrendered” completely to the Ben-Day dots.

Left: Nudes with Beach Ball, 1994 - Oil and Magna on canvas - 301 x 272.4 cm – Private collection - © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein New York / ADAGP, Paris, 2013
Right: Landscape with Philosopher, 1996 - Oil and Magna on canvas – Private collection

Lichtenstein never lost his sense of irony or playfulness. He liked to confront art and push its limits. Mirrors, which are impossible to reproduce with fidelity on the canvas, became for Lichtenstein a combination of hatch marks and rolling waves. In “Before the Mirror” from 1975, one can admire the challenges Lichtenstein imposed on himself as a painter: a mirror, reflecting a glass vase filled with water. The result is true to Lichtenstein’s universe – one that is impossible to ignore among the great movements of twentieth century art.

Left: Roy Lichtenstein is his Southampton studio. – Photo by Horst P. Hors - © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein New York / ADAGP, Paris, 20133
Right: Before the Mirror, 1975 – 108.6 x 81.2cm – Private collection - © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein New York / ADAGP, Paris, 2013

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