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Pop And Politics: London and Lisbon in the Late 1960s

An exhibition at Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon, shows the relationship between Portuguese and English Pop Art artists

With 1965 signalling the heyday of pop, and 1975 the start of the Portuguese revolution, this exhibition framed the efforts of artists working in England and Portugal during these years of roiling social change. At first blush, the two countries’ pairing would seem unlikely. Yet during the 1960s and ’70s, numerous Portuguese artists studied in London through the support of the Gulbenkian Foundation, which later acquired works by many of them. After 1968, pop and philo-pop painting engaged with political and ideological questions regarding consumer culture, the prevalence of the media and sexual and racial injustice. Warhol’s early images of televised race riots or car crashes bore a political edge to their numbing repetitions. Yet pop’s internationalization witnessed a more plain social commitment. The sprawling canvas of Eduardo Batarda and Nikias Skapinakis’s Delacroix no 25 de Abril em Atenas (1975), for example, links together respective ends of dictatorship in Greece and Portugal.

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José Rodrigues, Untitled, 1968, cut and polychromed iron plate, 2.1 × 2 × 3 m. Courtesy: Calouste Gulbenkian Museum; photograph: José Manuel Costa Alves

Many of the Portuguese artists working in a pop vein revealed an affinity for British precedents, such as Richard Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi, who simultaneously appropriated and ironized the textures and pleasures of the myriad commodities which had come to flood post-war urban life. Many such examples were displayed here alongside works by Portuguese counterparts. One self-contained room featured various newspaper clippings, magazines and television clips demonstrating Portugal’s newfound penchant for the culture of swinging London, from haircuts to beachwear to pop music. A far more interesting art historical case might have been made on the gallery walls, focusing – to take one example – upon the resonances of Richard Hamilton’s flattened and recombinative bodies in the paintings of Rolando Sá Nogueira. The painter Ruy Leitão studied in London under the British pop artist Patrick Caulfield. Yet any notion of an art historical (or at least formal) genealogy dissipated among the myriad loose threads of this manic, overstuffed show.

Another room featured various manifestos, placards and other agitprop material drawn from Portuguese counterculture and leftist opposition groups of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Once again, aesthetic phenomena often emerged at cross purposes from this historical narrative. The agitprop room made extensive reference to the Grupo Acre, a collective founded in the wake of the 1974 revolution. But their call for an art ‘of poor means’ in challenging political hegemony is in flagrant contrast to Richard Hamilton’s definition of pop art as ‘Gimmicky, Glamorous, and Big business’.

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Teresa Magalhães, Untitled, 1969, acrylic paint on canvas, 1.5 × 1.1 m. Courtesy: Collection Teresa Magalhães; photograph: Carlos Azevedo

This is not to say that pop did not influence divergent aesthetic sensibilities. Pop’s very assault upon high conceptions of form and culture waged a revolution parallel and complementary to political events. Yet in trying to comprise nearly every phenomenon – both pop and political – during these years, ‘Post-Pop’ ended up seizing upon none in particular. Richard Smith’s collaged geometric planes (Pale Green with Red and Blue, 1968) and shaped canvases (Brief Alphabet, 1966) are compelling, but bear no relationship to a world of (post-)pop politics. The bright colorations of Howard Hodgkin and Jeremy Moon, and Marc Lancaster’s abstract panels, bear about as much rapport with pop art and its political legacies as Agnes Martin’s grids, which is to say none at all.

Striking in the exhibition was the number of innovative works by women artists, such as Teresa Magalhães or Ana Vieira. Vieira’s sculptural bodies, formed from two three-dimensional cut-out silhouettes, emerge in absentia, and appear both resonant with artists such as Piero Gilardi, and are haunting in their own right. Less liberating – whether for women or anyone else – is the closed case in which the curators placed Clara Meneres’s resin phallic Relicário (Reliquary, 1969). Evoking, perhaps, the work’s eponymous liturgical aspects, the two cautions to potentially offended viewers undermined the work’s protest against the clockwork of patriarchy.

'Post-Pop: Beyond the Commonplace' was on view at Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon, from 20 April until 10 September 2018.

Main image: Nikias Skapinakis, Delacroix no 25 de Abril em Atenas (detail), 1975, oil on canvas, 145 x 235 cm. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Carlos Azevedo © Pintor 

Ara H. Merjian is Associate Professor of Italian Studies at New York University, USA, where he is an affiliate of the Institute of Fine Arts and Department of Art History.

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