Pallant House pieces together wide-ranging retrospective for Eduardo Paolozzi

By Mark Sheerin | 09 July 2013

Exhibition review: Eduardo Paolozzi: Collaging Culture, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, until October 13 2013

Colour pop art collage featuring a glamourous woman and a vintage sports car
Eduardo Paolozzi, Real Gold, 1949, Printed papers on paper, Tate, Presented by the artist 1995© The Trustees of the Eduardo Paolozzi Foundation
Having won the 2013 Wimbledon Tennis Tournament Andy Murray is British at last. It’s only worth a mention because the career of artist Eduardo Paolozzi appears to have been dogged by his Hibernian and Italian origins. If not for its very exoticism, his name would surely be a household one.

Born in 1924, Paolozzi fell under suspicion during WWII. The ice-cream parlour his parents ran was ransacked and his father, his uncle and his grandfather were interned and shipped off to Canada. They were subsequently killed when the boat was torpedoed.

Paolozzi's image was not much helped by the artist’s boyhood holidays - spent in Italy at a summer camp organised by the fascists. And though he joined the Pioneer Corps in Slough, his heart wasn’t in it. He feigned symptoms of mental illness to get a discharge.

Such was the worst possible start in joining the British art establishment, but Paolozzi, who was built like a brawler, would not be kept out. Tutors at the Ruskin School liked his “rough blood”. Not only was this student working class but he was fascinated with non-western art forms and the primitivism coming from artists like Picasso.

Colour photo of a sculpture of a semi-abstract frog featuring refuse cast in bronze
Eduardo Paolozzi, Large Frog, 1958, bronze, British Council Collection
Pretty shortly he made his way to Paris where he met fellow Europeans, Brancusi and Giacometti. And from this period came his first major contribution to British art, what he called the “extension of radical  surrealism” and the collages which were at once surreal and modern. Indeed his use of American consumer magazines should be seen as a form of Pop art avant le letter.

Take the woman with the vacuum cleaner in 1948 work, It’s a Psychological Fact that Pleasure helps your Disposition. She is a dead ringer for a woman who hoovers the stairs in a famous 1956 work by Richard Hamilton: Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? That is widely cited as the first piece of Pop, but surely Paolozzi got there first.

He certainly got to the medium first. Collage, as any visitor to this show will realise, was an attitude as much as a form for the Scottish/Italian/British artist. And it reaches a degree of perfection in the 1954 work Automobile Head.

This builds up engine parts to create an industrial counterpoint to the vegetable creations of Giuseppe Arcimboldo. The cylinders and pistons pull in different directions to create a sense of dynamism which would surely have been loved by the Futurists.

Colourful screenprint showing two figures in an urban landscape
Eduardo Paolozzi, Wittgenstein in New York from 'As is When', 1965, Screenprint on paper, Pallant House Gallery© The Trustees of the Eduardo Paolozzi Foundation
Even making sculpture, Paolozzi was piecing together readymade scraps. His Large Frog, the stuff of childhood nightmares, wears the cogs across its amphibious back and a piano keyboard in place of a mouth. But this is no mere bricolage.

The artist developed his lost-wax casting technique in which he would press his found objects into wax and then produce a bronze cast from that. The results shared all the liquid potential of wax with the gravity of bronze.

By 1967 we were in a war that put everyone in Britain on the front line. And Paolozzi was successful and naturalised enough to comment. He might have owed much of his imagery to American media, but he remained critical enough to turn some of that back at the bristling superpower.

America, which helped keep us in a nuclear stalemate thoughout the Cold War is the target for War Games Revised. It looks to be the grid of a model plane kit with a proliferation of bombs and a set of stickers bearing the face of Mickey Mouse.

That’s not to say that a clear political programme emerges from this show. Paolozzi was as much at home designing textiles and ceramics, as he was at framing existential warnings about nuclear holocausts.

For most of his career he was in step with technology, and many of his screenprints look as much like early circuit boards as anything else. Did Paolozzi invent the digital age? You could make a capricious case for it.

The mere fact you can imagine such a thing is a testimony to the scale and scope of this major show. It is the first Paolozzi retrospective since his death in 2005. It takes the visitor in different directions at once and is at least as important as a tennis title. Do put it on your list of Great British Days Out.

  • Admission £9 (£3.50). Open 10am-5pm Tuesday to Saturday (until 8pm Thursday and 11am-5pm Sunday).

Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.
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