In Focus: Paolozzi, Warhol and the promise and fears of the mechanised world

The uncanny connections between Scottish artists Eduardo Paolozzi and his American contemporary Andy Warhol are the subject of a fascinating new exhibition in Edinburgh. Lilias Wigan paid a visit.

American post-war advertising precipitated an eruption of glossy images publicising consumer goods: enticing foods, new cars and innovative household gadgets populated the pages of American magazines, usually augmented by pictures of glamorous women. The world was hurtling into a new mechanical era, shaped by technological advances and guilt-free satisfaction in all things suppressed during wartime.

Against that background came the work of artists such as Andy Warhol (1928-1987) and Scottish artist and sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi (1924-2005), who are the focus of a current exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh. The show is titled after Warhol’s declaration ‘I want to be a machine’ following their practices on either side of the pond, celebrating their achievements and drawing parallels between them.

Warhol believed that machinery’s rapid reshaping of the world would have the same impact on art as it did on everything else. The iconic screen-printing that he developed in the 1960s was a product of this mechanisation; like Warhol, Paolozzi worked frequently with screen-printing at this time.

However, before the 1960s, Warhol traced his images by hand while Paolozzi was concerned with creating collages. By 1949, when Warhol was in New York making commercial designs commissioned by magazines such as Glamour, Vogue, Seventeen and Harper’s Bazaar – many of which are on display – Paolozzi had spent two years visiting Paris, meeting artists such as Alberto Giacometti (1901–1966) and becoming familiar with Dadaism and the works of Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968).

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It was in Paris that Paolozzi began collecting exotic pictures from popular American magazines. He would tear out the commercial pages, rearranging the images to represent the new technological world and conjure up what he referred to as ‘the schizophrenic quality of life’. In 1952, in a lecture entitled Bunk, he showed some of these collages to bemused members of the Independent Group at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts. The collages were later to provide fundamental source material for the Pop Art movement.

Paolozzi was deeply engaged in the relationship between art and popular culture; his was an art that was inclusive and had mass appeal and collage became the perfect vehicle to enable this aesthetic exploration. Even his sculptures are a form of collage, with encrusted surfaces of metal holding industrial detritus or bits of old machinery. He declared his approach as being in line with that of the Africans or Indians: making use of everything and discarding nothing.

The proto-Pop collage in focus on this page, Real Gold (1949), shows a sort of celebration of modern life. On the one hand, it represents the prosperity and ease of post-war life; orange juice is poured into a frothing glass, a beguiling female smiles at the viewer, another goes gaily about her household chores while a man drives an impressive, streamlined car.

A lipstick, motorbike, radio and boiling kettle represent the simple, tangible keys to an effortless life. But there’s an underlying tension in this land of milk and honey.

Detail from Real Gold, 1949, by Eduardo Paolozzi (1924–2005). Printed papers on paper, 28.2 x 41cm. Collection: Tate, presented by the artist 1995. ©Trustees of the Paolozzi Foundation, Licensed by DACS 2018

Detail from Real Gold, 1949, by Eduardo Paolozzi (1924–2005). Printed papers on paper, 28.2 x 41cm. Collection: Tate, presented by the artist 1995. ©Trustees of the Paolozzi Foundation, Licensed by DACS 2018

Whereas Warhol’s relationship to the machine age was conceptual, Paolozzi’s was direct and visceral – he built anthropomorphic machinery and robots with complex designs and mechanised human brains. They were not just a symbols of prosperity, but also of a potentially crippling power, able to destroy mankind. The deployment of the atomic bomb in 1945 had already resulted in catastrophic destruction in Japan. Paolozzi was as fearful as he was excited by the rise of the machines.

The exhibition ends with a compelling recreation of Paolozzi’s studio, strewn with objects, with plaster casts for sculptures, busts and models, as well as his library, a propeller and other unusual artefacts. The work stations on either side show paper cutting for gathering the images for his innovative collages. Assembled together, all these things suggest a collage of the artist’s pioneering concerns – and show how Paolozzi anticipated Pop Art.

‘Andy Warhol and Eduardo Paolozzi: I want to be a machine’ is on view at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern Two), 73 Belford Road, Edinburgh, EH4 3DS until 2 June 2019. Admission is free.

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