Art review: Eduardo Paolozzi at the Whitechapel Gallery, London

Eduardo Paolozzi died in 2005. On 7 March he would have been 93. So, a day or two late, while reviewing the current exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in London this article also celebrates his birthday. Born in Leith in 1924, Paolozzi's art was protean, his creativity volcanic. Indeed there was something volcanic about the man himself. Massive in build and presence, he would growl like a sleeping volcano and then suddenly erupt. His art was like this too as he constantly reinvented himself. In the late Forties, he pioneered the idea that there was no such thing as fine art: art is the whole dizzying mass of images we produce. It is in them that we reveal ourselves; not in some polite front room of the imagination, but in its attics, cellars and dark corners. This shaped Pop Art, but if you called him a Pop artist, as people still do, he would certainly erupt. The only label he was happy with was Surrealist and indeed he was in a true, apostolic succession. In Paris he had met key Surrealist and Dada artists. They passed on the mantle and he never looked back, unless to recall those years as a happy time.

Detail from Wittgenstein in New York (from the As is When portfolio) 1965, Screenprint 76 x 53.5 cm, by Eduardo Paolozzi, courtesy of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art © Trustees of the Paolozzi Foundation, licensed by DACS Visual Arts

Eduardo Paolozzi ****

Whitechapel Gallery, London

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During the war, deported to Canada to be interned, Paolozzi’s father and grandfather perished when their ship, the Arandora Star, was torpedoed. Paolozzi himself was variously interned, served in the Pioneer Corps and studied in evening classes at Edinburgh College of Art. (Evening classes then covered the same curriculum as day classes.) He then went to the Slade. The success of his first one man show in 1947 gave him the means to go to Paris, but his work already revealed both his originality and his colossal energy. The Fisherman and his Wife, a big drawing in vigorously hatched pen against a dark ground, or The Fish with bold blocks of black and red, echo Picasso and also the work of Robert Colquhoun, but they are endowed with a fierce and solemn dignity which is entirely Paolozzi’s own.

Sculptures like Blue Fisherman, roughly shaped in concrete, show the same uncompromising urgency as his drawings. The big discovery he made in Paris, however, was Surrealist collage, the free association of disparate elements, cut up and brought together to forge something quite new. This idea went through many transformations in his work, but remained his central metaphor for the modern world. Bunk, a series of collages made between 1947 and ’52, mostly from magazine illustrations, and later published as prints, are the most familiar of his early collages. (Bunk was also the title of an explosive stream of consciousness lecture with images but no words that Paolozzi gave at the ICA in 1951.) But the exhibition also includes beautiful abstract collages, many of them made from fragments of fabrics that he designed for Hammer Prints, a design company that he set up with is friend Nigel Henderson. A rather stylish dress made in one of his fabrics is also displayed.

Following his key idea of collage, Paolozzi made a series of dramatically forceful sculptures using its three-dimensional variation, assemblage. Cast in bronze, the sculptures combine bits of machinery, toys, fragments of all kinds, but forged into a single, indivisible whole. Here too Picasso had recently led the way, but works like The Philosopher, His Majesty the Wheel and St Sebastian are quite distinct. They are figures certainly, but are not remotely anthropomorphic. Paolozzi has moved on from Picasso to engage directly with the bleak new order of the postwar world. Among his drawings the closest in feeling to these remarkable sculptures is a series of dark and very striking monotype heads.

In the Sixties these figures morphed into strange and sinister mechanical deities like Tyrannical Tower Crowned. They are still assemblages, but the elements are more organised. This happens, too, in prints like the series As Is When made in 1964 and ’65. All sorts of disparate collaged elements are welded together into a brilliant, complex, but tightly composed surface. In prints like these, too, Paolozzi pioneered the use for art of the commercial technique of screen printing, and to great effect. One of the joys of this show is seeing series of his screen-prints hung as units. The ten prints of Universal Electronic Vacuum, for instance, are hung edge to edge in a mirrored vitrine. Their dazzle is also aptly paired with a row of striking chrome sculptures he made in the Sixties, typically embracing an industrial material and making art from it.

Here as elsewhere in the show Jeff Koons is revealed to be a rather limp follower and how remote, too. Paolozzi would have nothing to do with dealers or with commercial, “glossy” art generally. He determinedly ploughed his own furrow, but he was also always conscious of the opposition. The roughness of his assemblages defied the drawing room finish of Henry Moore and in the Sixties and Seventies he comprehensively rubbished Pop Art with works like Lots of Pictures – Lots of Fun, a cartoon elephant painting the stars and stripes, and Minimalism with 100% F*art, a pile of aluminium bricks. Here perhaps he also satirises himself a little, however, for his own work did become much more formal and he used industrial, extruded aluminium to create sculptures that could be made and remade in different arrangements.

He also sought a visual equivalent for the way that in both music and language infinite complexity is constructed from simple elements. He deployed the formal language he devised to great effect in wonderful print series like Calcium Light Night and the woodblocks For Charles Rennie Mackintosh, but also in monumental works like the mosaic decorations for the Tottenham Court Road Tube Station, represented here by drawings.

In 1985 Paolozzi created Lost Magic Kingdoms, an exhibition in the ethnographic Museum of Mankind, bringing together often ephemeral items from the collections with his own work. He always said this was a very important event for him and his purpose seems ultimately to have been the same as it had been with Bunk. The Lost Magic Kingdoms were not only the lost cultures whose spiritual worlds were represented by the objects he chose, but the lost imaginative and spiritual kingdoms of our own culture, still essential to us, no matter how sophisticated

and remote from such primitive concerns we believe ourselves to be.

When I got to this point in the show, I did wonder where the next room was, but there wasn’t one. Having started out celebrating the power of his early work, the exhibition ends more or less with Lost Magic Kingdoms and how, following it, he explored the provisional and extemporised in his own work. This is fascinating and subversive too, but there is actually very little from the last decade of his life in the show and nothing really monumental. Space might have precluded it, but still some reference should have been made to works like his eight foot figure The Artist as Hephaestos, artificer to the gods, that was a kind of self-portrait, or the Manuscript of Monte Cassino at the head of Leith Walk. This enigmatic piece is sited outside his parish church. It includes stones from Leith Station near his birthplace. His family came from near Monte Cassino, the great monastery destroyed in the war. The whole sculpture, therefore, is a grand soliloquy on his own life as a kind of exile and on war, destruction and reconstruction. Some reference to such mighty and personal works might have seemed appropriate. Still, there is plenty here to persuade us, if indeed we needed persuading, that he really was a very great artist.

*Until 14 May