RA Magazine Spring 2013
Issue Number: 118
Royal Academicians look at Lichtenstein and Schwitters
Two Royal Academicians, Humphrey Ocean and Chris Orr, offer their insights on two very different artists whose work they admire – Roy Lichenstein and Kurt Schwitters.
Humphrey Ocean RA on Roy Lichtenstein
Roy Lichtenstein, 'Landscape in Fog', 1996. Private Collection/© Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/DACS 2013. My first Roy Lichtenstein was 'Whaam!' Van Gogh had already got me going and still does but he happened to be dead. I was at school with my eye on art school in 1966, the year it arrived in England and this was alive, this was now. Here was beauty and heresy and dots in one picture. Plus it was American. How our European heads were turning. Because it appeared youthful and fresh I had no idea at the time that Lichtenstein was a seasoned 38 when he hit his stride. Nor, I imagine, could anyone have predicted his ability to sustain – unusual considering the confines of cartoon imagery he had chosen. But he was a painter and after a big fish: the way we look. In one respect, he is a natural successor to Schwitters. He approached the huge and slippery subject of perception with an unswerving devotion to the power of cheap print and everyday household items.
You can see by his line he was never cornered. Moving and wavering in the breeze it unrolled in such a way that 30 years on he was making pictures with the lightness of 'Landscape in Fog', so close to and so far from 'Whaam!' Throughout his painting life, Lichtenstein used something called Magna which I have never got to the bottom of, however many people I ask. It might be oil or acrylic or just simply American. Actually I don’t want to know as long as he could get those colours and that particular flatness, human still for all its detachment. At every turn his pictures of Swiss cheese and school Compositions books, brushstrokes and modern interiors managed to rise up and reflect like a mirror, clean and uncluttered. They were open and they were airy. His 'Tire' was going somewhere.
Chris Orr RA on Kurt Schwitters
Kurt Schwitters, 'En Morn', 1947. © Centre Georges Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris/DACS 2013. When I was a professor at the Royal College of Art, the story of Schwitters’ time in the Lake District fascinated me. A refugee from Nazi Germany, he died in Ambleside in 1948, having completed his last work, the 'Merzbarn', a collage of sculpture, architecture, and painting. During the Second World War the Royal College of Art had evacuated to Ambleside to escape the London Blitz. Yet there seems to be no evidence of any communication between the young artstudents and the veteran of Dada, despite thefact that they drank in the same pubs. The ironyis that it is Schwitters who is the big influence on artists and designers nowadays.
Schwitters is the exponent par excellence of collage, the bringing together of ready-made disparate materials. All artists make collage in one way or another. They assemble ideas through a synthesis of memory and observation, intuitively editing and organising their material. Schwitters is an artist of the machine age. We now know how to read a work like En Morn, of 1947, where Schwitters throws popular imagery from a magazine alongside emotive and ambiguous words, as well as bus tickets and packaging. We can negotiate the seemingly unrelated elements. It predicts the language of contemporary film and the internet. It is at the heart of modern culture.
Collage is both surprisingly easy and yet difficult. Our world is full of fascinating fragments. There is beauty even in the rejected and degraded elements that we produce in prodigious quantities, but to make sense and poetry out of these materials takes a visionary artist. Schwitters was the transformative man who we were fortunate enough to have come to this country.
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