Whaam! "Like swotting a fly with a bazooka" - Roy Lichtenstein at Tate Modern

By Ben Miller | 20 February 2013

Exhibition preview: Lichtenstein: A Retrospective, Tate Modern, London, February 21 – May 27 2013

a large painting of a cartoon panel in which an American fighter jet destroys an enemy plane whihc explodes with a loud Whaam!
Roy Lichtenstein, Whaam! 1963© Tate. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/DACS 2012
Last year, the Art Institute of Chicago opened the most complete Roy Lichtenstein retrospective since his death in 1994.

Rewarded with record numbers, it united 170 works. And after six years of negotiations to procure a complete picture of the artist’s career from around the world, co-curator James Rondeau exudes an energy the dextrous Pop Art pioneer would have been proud of.

“As a man he was so modest and diffident,” says Rondeau. “So when he tried expressionist painting, it didn’t work for him.

“In his works, he almost said, ‘you want emotion? I’m going to deliver it in this pre-packaged way. Here’s this powerful product, there’s your emotion.'”

Rondeau’s partner in unpicking the mystery of a pop art master has been Sheena Wagstaff, who was Tate Modern’s Chief Curator before a switch to the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York.

For the London leg, they’ve created a room called Art About Art, in which Lichtenstein variously takes on Piet Mondrian, Picasso, Mickey Mouse and the Cubist, still life and purist movements.

“These are history paintings for the present,” says Mondeau, suggesting Lichtenstein’s approach was often “like swotting a fly with a bazooka.”

“He gets a confidence from parodying the idea of style. What he absorbed from the analytical forms of cubism is everywhere.

“He was about stylisation, and you could stylise everything, meaning he was able to continually reinvent.”

He saw the age of mass production as a universal leveller. “It’s cynical, but it’s also democratic,” says Mondeau.

“Is there a difference between Mickey Mouse and a Mondrian if they both exist on the level of a postcard? The impulse to mine history runs through his career – it exists from the earliest memories of Roy’s consciousness.”

More than 50 years after he first found favour in New York, Lichtenstein’s Old Master impersonations leave Mondeau regarding him as something of an illusionist.

“What’s undeniable to me is that Roy’s simplifying of style takes hold – somehow, his clarity takes over, and we’re left to ask whether it was a Lichtenstein before it was a Picasso.

“Although they never knew each other, Warhol and Lichstenstein began working with images within months of each other, and it’s not an overstatement to say that art and pop culture as we know them today wouldn’t exist without them.

“There’s this incredible collision between the high and the low, between the seriousness of painting and pop culture.”

Open 10am-6pm (10pm Saturday and Sunday, 8pm Sunday). Tickets £12.20-£15.50, book online. Visit the gallery on Twitter @Tate

More images:

a painting of a cartoon panel with a woman on the phone saying "Oh Jeff... I love you, too... but..."
Roy Lichtenstein, Oh, Jeff…I Love You, Too…But… 1964.© Collection Simonyi © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/DACS 2012
a painting of an American style cartoon panel with a clean cut man and a woman
Roy Lichtenstein, Masterpiece 1962.© Private Collection © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/DACS 2012
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