The Staatsgalerie Stuttgart is hereby presenting the first comprehensive exhibition of Pop Art portraits. Works dating from the early nineteen-fifties to the period of the style’s full development as an international phenomenon after 1965 will be on view. The portraits of Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and others have long been regarded icons of the fine arts. Nevertheless, the significance of portraiture in the Pop Art movement has hardly been investigated until now. Nor has sufficient scholarly attention yet been devoted to Pop Art as a historical response to the preceding era of abstraction in the age of the mass media. Our comprehensive show, developed in collaboration with the National Portrait Gallery, London, aims to remedy this state of affairs.
In its investigation of the role and significance of portraiture in Pop Art, the exhibition is divided into the following sections:
The roots of Pop Art can be traced back to a lecture entitled »Bunk« held by Eduardo Paolozzi in 1952 at the first meeting of the »Independent Group« in London. Attended by artists, architects and writers, this discussion circle met regularly at the Institute of Contemporary Art to study contemporary urban culture. Paolozzi’s projected collages from American magazines reflected the consciously anti-elitist and anti-academic attitude of a group which also demonstrated an open-minded approach to the commercial culture and iconography of the »New World«. In addition to these early portrait collages by Paolozzi, the exhibition also shows pioneering works by Richard Hamilton, Nigel Henderson and Peter Blake. The use of portrait-like images by New York artists of the 1950s as a reaction to abstract expressionism is a clear indication of Pop Art’s parallel developments in the U.S. and G.B.
This section covers the period from the late nineteen-fifties to the mid sixties. It shows how British and American artists employed the portrait as a means of developing a new distinctive figurative style which departed from the expressive forms and ideas of the preceding artistic generation. David Hockney, Allen Jones, Patrick Caulfield and Derek Boshier are among the young artists of the Royal College of Art who presented Pop Art to the public in exhibitions of contemporary works in 1961. The »hidden« self-portrait served here to question the effects of the modern world on personal identity, a theme of central importance at the time. Andy Warhol addressed the problem by mass-reproducing his self-portraits, thus turning his own person into a run-of-the-mill article of merchandise.
Between 1962 and 1965, Pop Art came into the limelight and attracted an international public. The ever-more-widespread representation of the woman in the media now became an important aspect of the new movement. Pop artists explored the development of fame – and the destruction of identity – through the exploitation of female sexuality in advertising and in the context of pin-ups. Peter Blake, Allen Jones, Mel Ramos and others shed light on the sexualization of the female image and changing sensibilities in their striking portraits. The woman as a stereotype, reduced to a nameless mass product of male fantasy, is also the theme of Tom Wesselmann’s »Great Nude«.
From 1964 to 1966, Andy Warhol made 472 silent three-minute film portraits of 189 men and women of New York's »art scene«. The resulting film »Screen Test« describes the emergence of portraits through time, movement and change. The London filmmaker Peter Gidal responded in 1969 with Heads, showing 30 sitters from the realm of art. By capturing them at an extreme close-up, he intensifies the experience of passing time as an element in the description of the human being.
A general feeling of confidence prevailed in the early nineteen-sixties. In view of the American youth culture, the advancements on the technological front and the conquest of outer space, people had the buoyant feeling that a new era had begun. The works shown here mirror that optimism with a focus on Pop music and fashion as well as space travel and modern life. But the sixties also experienced the frightening consequences of the Cuban missile crisis, the assassination of President Kennedy and the conflict in Northern Ireland, as well as student protests, civil rights marches and demonstrations against the war in Vietnam. This very emotion-charged change of climate can also be sensed in the Pop Art portraits of the same years. A strong, critical, ambivalent tone reflects the atmosphere of uncertainty which took the place of the initially self-confident outlook.
Under the influence of Hollywood, heroes and heroines of the silver screen – representatives of the American dream whose lives broke under the weight of their success – became a popular motif in Pop Art portraiture. Of all the many celebrities, one in particular stands out, exemplifying the relationship between Pop Art and the phenomenon of fame particularly well: Marilyn Monroe. Whereas works of Pop Art initially reflect a rather uncritical fascination with her media image, the actress’s death on 4 August 1962 ushered in a new perception of her person. The impression of the shining star was overshadowed by speculations about the unhappy circumstances of her private life. In addition to celebrating an icon, many portraits also explore the destructive effects of fame. The deconstruction of the dazzling façade reveals the conflict between the real person and the image of her propagated by the media.
Printmaking was one of the fundamental forms of expression in Pop Art. To a previously unknown degree, it took on the function of spreading and advertising the artist and his ideas on the commercial level. In this context, the silkscreen was the Pop artists’ preferred medium. The works from the Department of Prints and Drawings on view in the exhibition were already purchased for the collection in the nineteen-sixties as examples of the latest developments in contemporary art.
Wesselmann’s three-dimensional vinyl print »Cut-Out Nude« and Mimmo Rotella’s poster collage »Marilyn« enhance the exhibition with regard to Pop Art’s technical diversity.
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