Where to even begin in describing Whitechapel Gallery’s Eduardo Paolozzi retrospective, which brings together over 250 of the works, spanning five decades, of the ‘Godfather of Pop Art’? A man who was heavily influenced by popular culture and who did not, as the exhibition testifies, limit himself to just one art form – collages, sculptures, textiles and prints all contributed to Paolozzi’s formidable oeuvre.
Thankfully, given its size, the exhibition is well-organised, with part 1 focusing on Paolozzi’s early career in London and Paris, part 2 examining the significant shifts in his artistic development and the final third considering Paolozzi’s devotion to making, breaking & remaking as a recurring theme.
This exhibition was a real learning curve for me, as someone not hugely familiar with Paolozzi’s work – and I came away feeling I had learned a lot not just about his art but about him as a person. Born in 1924, to Italian immigrants, Paolozzi grew up in Edinburgh, where he assisted his parents with their ice cream shop – the advertising and packaging in the shop’s windows were an early influence. He found success at a young age, holding his first solo exhibition aged 22 at London’s Mayor Gallery: Picasso-inspired drawings and collages which set Paolozzi apart from his peers because of his use of concrete, until then considered a working man’s material.
This initial success allowed Paolozzi to move to Paris, where he mingled with many of the great artists of that era and drew inspiration from the Surrealist movement. Later on in his life, Paolozzi would remember this period with nostalgia, saying that Paris was “perfect – colourful, after the grey life of London.” Paris was also where he completed sculptures such as ‘Table Sculpture (Growth)’ and ‘Forms on a Bow No. 2’, which were considered less raw than his previous work.
Despite falling in love with the City of Light, Paolozzi did eventually return to London and in 1952 delivered his legendary ‘Bunk!’ lecture to an audience at the ICA. Described by one attendee as an “onslaught” of images, many now consider the lecture to pre-empt the birth of pop culture.
Paolozzi went on to achieve so much more in his extensive career, including co-founding the design company Hammer Prints Ltd, revolutionising the technique of screen printing, experimenting with chromed sculpture and curating exhibitions such as ‘Lost Magic Kingdoms’ at London’s Museum of Mankind. His creativity, ingenuity and curiosity about life knew no bounds – and that is reflected in this exhibition. I cannot, though, in all honesty say that I loved what I saw today (although I did love Whitechapel Gallery itself; what a great space for art). Yes, some of it was fascinating – but it was also quite overwhelming. I would have enjoyed it more had the exhibition focused on one particular aspect or era of Paolozzi’s work, and provided more details accordingly – as it was, the viewer was left trying to bridge the gaps between each element of the exhibition. So many items were included that I’m struggling now to remember which, if any, had a particular impact on me.
That said, this certainly was an educational experience – and funnily enough, having known very little about Paolozzi before our visit, I now keep coming across his work – his mosaics in Tottenham Court tube station and his sculpture of Isaac Newton which sits outside the British Library, for example. I was interested to read, too, that Art on the Underground has paired up with Whitechapel Gallery to create a map of Paolozzi’s work around London – it looks as though I’ll be seeing much more of it in the future.