Art reviews: Paolozzi at 100 | Andy Warhol: The Textiles

There is much of interest in the first two rooms of the Paolozzi at 100 exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and then… nothing. Review by Duncan Macmillan

Paolozzi at 100, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh ***

Andy Warhol: The Textiles, Dovecot Studio, Edinburgh ****

Leaving aside the meretricious fame of celebrity, no matter how famous they are at home not many contemporary British artists have ever had a real reputation and influence beyond their native land. Eduardo Paolozzi did however. A volcano of creativity, he brought about a seismic shift in the way we see things and what we regard as art. In 1952 in a slide show called Bunk at the ICA in London he presented the insight he was already exploring in his art: there is no such thing as fine art separate from all the mass of infinitely diverse and constantly intercutting imagery with which we are bombarded. The machine, too, is an integral part of all this and so became intrinsic to his imagery. But his deeper point was that this visual torrent has somehow to be accommodated if the imagination is to flourish and the needs that art has met throughout human history are still to be met now; if indeed we are to recover what he called “the lost magic kingdoms”. He also saw that, within this dizzying kaleidoscope, nothing has privilege. Others followed his lead – Warhol, Rauschenberg, Pop Art generally, though he didn’t like to be associated with it.

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Collage was his chosen vehicle. Inherited from the surrealists, several of whose leading figures he met, he used it to create an epic vision of the shifting experiences of the modern world. Technically adventurous, he was a giant and the massive, welded steel figure of Vulcan which towers through two storeys of the National Gallery of Modern Art’s Modern Two is an apt symbol of his stature. Vulcan was smith to the gods on Olympus.

Paolozzi who died in 2009 was born in Leith on 7 March 1924. This is his centenary and the National Galleries are marking it with Paolozzi at 100. I went along in anticipation and after the first two rooms and some documents displayed in the Keiller Library looked for the main exhibition on the upper floor, but that gallery is closed and empty. Those two rooms, plus his studio, a permanent feature anyway, are all there is. It’s pathetic, a molehill for a mountain, and graceless too. Paolozzi was a major benefactor to the National Gallery, not only for what he himself gave, but also because it was because of his friendship with her that Gabrielle Keiller’s great surrealist collection came to Scotland. He deserves our gratitude. I don’t see it here.

Perhaps a dead, old white man doesn’t fit the profile the gallery wants to project. If so, his life story defies such simplicities. Migration and the insecurity of the modern world dominate our news. Paolozzi was the son of Italian immigrants. Their community in Edinburgh suffered terribly when Italy joined the war in 1940, and the Paolozzi family suffered more than most. Eduardo himself was briefly interned and later enlisted in the Pioneer Corps, but his father, his grandfather and his uncle were lost when, taking Italians to be interned in Canada, their ship, the Arandora Star, was sunk by a U-boat.

Paolozzi’s great sculpture, Manuscript of Monte Cassino, sited at the head of Leith Walk, is a complex and beautiful soliloquy on exile, displacement, the senseless destruction of war and the necessary struggle constantly to rebuild. Sited outside the artist’s childhood parish church, the sculpture is both grand and very personal. Paolozzi’s parents both came from Viticuso near the ancient monastery of Monte Cassino, tragically destroyed in the war. The manuscript in the title is a poem about exile written far from home by a monk from the monastery. In an even more personal reference the monument should include stones from demolished Leith Station marking the artist’s birthplace which was nearby. The city, however, has added its own injury to the insult of this inadequate exhibition. Recently the sculpture had to be moved temporarily. It has now been reinstated on its original site, but without these stones. Disgracefully, the sculpture has been diminished by those who should look after it. The stones must be found and replaced urgently. All this is pretty shaming. Paolozzi was a generous man. He was not commercial, had no time for dealers and frequently did work at cost. Our commemoration should surely have been as generous.

Installation view of Paolozzi at 100 Pic: Neil HannaInstallation view of Paolozzi at 100 Pic: Neil Hanna
Installation view of Paolozzi at 100 Pic: Neil Hanna

There is an exhibition, however, and given the artist, what little is on view is certainly of interest. The room adjacent to his reconstructed studio is devoted to early work. Take-off, a plane on a carrier deck and an ice dancer bizarrely juxtaposed, is typical of his early collages. Automobile Head, a semi-human image from a collage of machinery, introduces a lifelong theme. The same theme is there in collages combining machinery and classical sculpture and also in a stunning trio of bronzes made by assemblage – collage in three dimensions. The power of his drawing is unmistakable, too, in London Zoo Aquarium from 1951, for instance, and in design exercises from his teaching at the Central School in London where, along with several other notable Scots, he was recruited by the school’s principal, William Johnstone.

The other room devoted to design pays homage to Paolozzi’s diversity. The principal theme is textile design and his collaboration around 1970 with Lanvin in Paris. Together they created some stunning haute couture using patterns inspired by Paolozzi’s print series displayed here, Moonstrips Empire News. There are also fragments here from the mosaic, now partly dismantled, that he designed for Tottenham Court Road tube station and plates designed for Wedgwood. He really was versatile. In the library are documents relating to monumental works like Manuscript of Monte Cassino, the tube station mosaics and the figure of Newton outside the British Library. In addition, in the cafe his set of prints, Calcium Light Night, is hung over the tables. High above, the ceiling is, of course, also by Paolozzi.

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Andy Warhol, also the son of immigrants, was three years younger than Paolozzi, but as an artist he was not quite contemporary because he worked exclusively as a graphic designer until the early 1960s. Whether or not he was indebted to Paolozzi is hard to say, but there can be no doubt that his essential insight was the same: the ubiquity of the image changes art. In the 50s, amongst other things, Warhol made textile designs and an intriguing exhibition at Dovecot Studios is devoted to them. Brightly coloured and made up of repeated images of fruit, butterflies, socks, even buttons, and much else, they seem very much of the period, especially when presented on contemporary dresses, bathing suits and suchlike. Some are beautiful and throughout he used a technique of transferred drawing that gives a special quality to his line. You can see, too, however how the focus on the individual motif itself, set in a crowded design, but distinct and without context, could easily morph into an art where initially at least this is also what happens, where a Campbell’s soup can or a Coca-Cola bottle is just the thing itself in all its thingness. Four pink flowers in a tapestry also look at first glance just like a set of his portraits of Marilyn Monroe.

Paolozzi at 100 until 21 April; Andy Warhol until 18 May