Erase, Deface, Transform

Hal Foster

  • Eduardo Paolozzi
    Whitechapel Gallery, until 18 May

Born to Italian shopkeepers in Edinburgh in 1924, Eduardo Paolozzi was a key member of the Independent Group (IG) of artists, architects, curators and critics formed in London in the early 1950s. He was especially active in the New Brutalist wing of the IG, which also included the artists Nigel Henderson, William Turnbull and Magda Cordell, the architects Peter and Alison Smithson, and the critic Reyner Banham. In the late 1980s the Smithsons looked back on the ‘as found’ aesthetic of New Brutalism as ‘a confronting recognition of what the postwar world actually was like’: ‘In a society that had nothing you reached for what there was, previously unthought of things … We were concerned with the seeing of materials for what they were: the woodness of wood, the sandiness of sand. With this came a distaste of the simulated.’ Implicitly here the Smithsons were positioning New Brutalism against the simulacral culture of American advertising then on the rise, yet the IG was also fascinated by this new culture and, with its echo of the objet trouvé, the ‘as found’ advanced its own version of image-making too.

‘Allegro Moderato’ (1974), a screenprint

This tension between material and image charged most New Brutalist activities; certainly it led Paolozzi and Henderson to renew the avant-garde practice of collage in the form of an aesthetic of tackboard juxtaposition. Collage is ‘my only method’, remarked Paolozzi, who extended it to the verbal mélange of his poetry and prose, and the same was true of Henderson, especially in his clotted ‘screens’ of found images. The two friends were familiar with Dadaist and Surrealist practices from London and Paris, where Paolozzi lived and Henderson visited from summer 1947 to autumn 1949. ‘That French approach, the need, the passion, to consider and handle things at the same time … is very necessary for me,’ Paolozzi claimed. ‘The concern with different materials, disparate ideas … becomes almost a description of the creative act – to juggle with these things.’ However, Dadaist and Surrealist collages were pledged to disturbance, political and psychosexual; Paolozzi’s images more ambiguous in effect. With material drawn from war-damaged books purchased cheaply in London, he sometimes overlaid pictures of classical sculptures with cutouts of contemporary machines in a way that suggested the modernity celebrated by Dada and Surrealism had already arrived – with disastrous results. To substitute a cross-section of a broken mechanism for a classical head of Zeus or Demeter, as Paolozzi did in collages dated to 1946, is to travesty the modernist worship of the machine god.

Paolozzi carried this travesty forward in his bronze sculptures of the 1950s. Cast at the Hampstead home of the director of the ICA, Dorothy Morland, his first homunculi have blobby heads and stubby arms, and, though a few gesture emphatically, it isn’t clear what they are communicating – perhaps the inability to communicate at all. ‘The consuming interest of Paolozzi is with the physiological and psychological limits of man,’ the IG convener, curator and critic Lawrence Alloway wrote of the figures. ‘These limits have been widened lately, with concentration camps, exposure at sea, the pressure of -45 gravities. It is to find an image of man tough enough and generalised enough to stand up in this environment that Paolozzi is working.’

Early on this theme of man under stress, in mutation even, is explicit, perhaps too much so. By the mid-1950s, however, Paolozzi found ways to integrate the subject of survival into the making of his work with a signature technique that also allowed him to expand the size of his figures. ‘I began with clay rolled out on a table,’ he explained.

Into the clay I pressed pieces of metal, toys etc. I also sometimes scored the clay. From there I proceeded in one of two ways. Either I would pour wax directly onto the clay to get a sheet or I would pour plaster onto the clay. With the plaster I then had a positive and a negative form on which to pour the wax. The wax sheets were pressed around forms, cut up and added to forms or turned into shapes on their own.

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