Walking from his Dovehouse Street studio on to the King’s Road to catch the number 19 bus to the Royal Academy of Arts on Piccadilly was very slow going indeed. True, my minotaur companion was not light on his feet, nor was he the spryest of septuagenarian escorts, but those facts alone did not make what should have been a five-minute journey stretch out to half an hour and beyond. He paused regularly to look into and harvest from the brutal, overloaded skips that punctuated our way as we moved unhurriedly along the otherwise chi-chi Chelsea streets, sometimes pulling out a promising fragment that would make it from skip to studio, and depositing it in his shabby bag. My friend was never without a bag. He would ask me to pick up whatever caught his eye beneath our feet as we walked, and if it passed his inspection that too would be reserved. It is extraordinary to think that all this rubbish, all this discarded material from a sort of urban nature trail, would be reimagined (and what an imagination!) by this unique cultural figure – a major, prolific and complex artist – to make works that undoubtedly fascinate and inspire. But Eduardo Paolozzi was a master of the art of borrowing. Spanning some fifty years, his is the most extraordinary catalogue of interdisciplinary work, including textiles, film, collage, ceramics, bronze and aluminium. The breadth, intricacies and themes of Paolozzi’s output can only be described as a true cornucopia of our time. As the novelist J.G. Ballard put it: ‘if the entire twentieth century were to vanish in some huge calamity, it would be possible to reconstitute a large part of it from his sculpture and screenprints.’ Such was the scale of Paolozzi’s borrowing and reimagining.
Eduardo Paolozzi was born in 1924, in Leith, the then rough docklands area of Edinburgh, to Italian immigrant parents who owned an ice-cream shop. His interest in American culture began when his family were given free weekly cinema tickets in return for displaying posters for the local cinema in their shop. Aged three, he began to accompany his mother on regular visits to the movies. He enthusiastically cut images from the books of film stars that the cinema offered, as well as amassing cigarette cards that shop customers gave him. When, in 1987, Murray Grigor made his award-winning film for Channel 4, EP Sculptor, Grigor filmed a beautiful sequence of cigarette cards flying through the air, dreamily floating before our eyes. The scene never made the cut. Eduardo objected to the filmmaker’s focus on the cigarette cards. For him they were disposable items of no monetary value, and he resented their now desirable and expensive status, one that had been afforded them by collectors with deep pockets. To his mind the cards’ original lack of value had now been, so to speak, devalued. The family shop provided further rich pickings for the young boy: discarded, shiny, bright and colourful sweet wrappings were also gathered up and kept between the pages of his boyhood scrapbooks. There was still something of that inquisitive child magpie in the celebrated artist I walked with in Chelsea seven decades later when Eduardo continued to cherish the leftovers that society deemed worthless and disposable. It is again extraordinary to realise that this lifelong habit of harvesting and collaging formed the very roots from which his glittering career sprang; it led in 1986 to his being appointed the Queen’s Sculptor in Ordinary for Scotland, and later in 1989 to the knighthood that turned the boy from the ice-cream parlour in Leith into Sir Eduardo Paolozzi.
To borrow is to take and use something belonging to someone else with the intention of returning it; a borrowing must, by definition, be returned. Paolozzi took a comprehensive approach to the issue. As Robin Spencer remarks, ‘Paolozzi suggested that creative use can be made from all of society’s resources, especially what it throws away, and that imagination is more dependable than reason.’ Like the pop artists he inspired, Paolozzi found inspiration in popular culture. In his case, what he borrowed from low culture he returned as high culture, transforming everyday, entertaining and easy-to-understand images and objects into intellectually challenging artworks. I suppose you could say he returned his borrowings with added interest, paying back far more than he owed. In 1986 the National Art Library acquired the Krazy Kat Arkive of Twentieth Century Popular Culture, named after the American comic strip character created by the cartoonist George Herriman. The Arkive is made up of nearly 41,000 items that Paolozzi began to amass in the 1950s, and it reflects his interest in popular culture, especially the image of the hero and the iconography of the machine age. The collection includes about 4,200 comics – examples of 255 titles from the USA, 157 from Britain and a handful from Europe and Japan. The great majority of titles date from the 1960s and 1970s. Paolozzi’s treasure trove of seeming ephemera provided him with material for his collages and sculptures. Comprising print material, technology, toys and other popular products, the Arkive was indexed by Paolozzi according to a peculiar taxonomy, grouping together aircraft, automobiles, cogwheels, film stars, animals, robots and art objects, for example. These are categories more readily associated with the mind-set of a child or a shopkeeper than with that of a scientific archivist, and they remind us of Paolozzi’s collage books, which were the earliest by-product of his urge to collect and preserve. And yet, while the Krazy Kat Archive is indeed a collection, I prefer to think of it more as a reservoir. Collecting may not be the same as borrowing, but Eduardo did not acquire these items for the sake of owning them; rather, by using (or reusing) them, he invested each of them with new thought patterns, and added new value to them in the process. For whereas collecting implies a sort of hoarding – a dogged determination to own – borrowing ideally involves putting a borrowed item to further use – whether it is money borrowed from a bank, the loan of a neighbour’s lawnmower or the clock parts that Paolozzi pressed into plaster to create a sculpture.
Arguably, all art is borrowed as all artists have their influences, including, of course, the work of other artists. Marcel Duchamp notoriously condemned the work of many of his fellow artists (notably Henri Matisse) as ‘retinal’ art: art that was purely visual and intended to be pleasing to the eye alone. By contrast, Duchamp paved the way for conceptual art – work that was produced ‘in the service of the mind’. He took everyday, commonplace objects, sometimes slightly altered – a bicycle wheel or a snow shovel, for example – and called them works of art. These are Duchamp’s ‘readymades’. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – and created a new thought for that object. A new thought for an existing object – the ramifications of that brilliant argument have been momentous. It is only one small step to a new context for an established brand of soup, as in the recreation of the familiar tin can in the hands of Andy Warhol. The mid-1950s saw the birth of pop art, the movement of which Paolozzi is often regarded as a leading and celebrated figure. In the late 1950s and early 1960s he was best known as a member of the Independent Group, a loose association of British artists and critics who treated American advertising, movies and industrial design as serious objects of study. Paolozzi himself always maintained that he was a surrealist, but his was a surrealism that drew on popular culture, and it is hardly surprising that pop artists found inspiration in his uncanny ability to reinvent mass-produced ephemera. Pop art’s own borrowing was at least as direct, obvious and blatant as anything that preceded it, and this exposed its practitioners to some harsh criticism that they readily rebuffed … or wholeheartedly embraced! For example, when his work was repeatedly dismissed as ‘superficial’ by Clement Greenberg, the leading art critic of the day, Warhol was quick to agree: ‘I am a deeply superficial person.’ Itself a quasi-borrowing from Oscar Wilde, Warhol’s quip is an oxymoron that superbly sums up the contradictory spirit of the pop art movement.
In Blueprints for a New Museum (1980–1), a series of six prints, Paolozzi reaches back to antiquity, reinterpreting the Laocoön, a celebrated Hellenistic masterpiece that was unearthed in Rome in 1506. Artists including Titian, Michelangelo, El Greco and Rubens all referenced this seminal work, but Paolozzi’s borrowing is a radical departure from the tradition; it even differs dramatically from William Blake’s engraving, framed with diverse annotations, and proclaiming Blake’s belief in the Old and New Testaments as ‘the Great Code of Art’. Paolozzi cuts out and pastes the Laocoön so it becomes, along with Mr. Peanut, Mickey Mouse and an array of 1950s robots and rockets, one of a select group of motifs that permeate his artistic creations. The Laocoön playfully retains overtones of museumish authority in Blueprints for a New Museum (the original is displayed in the Vatican Museum), but is now reimagined by Paolozzi in a world of astronauts, vintage pin-up girls, machines and beasties: for this new age the ancient marble sculpture is invested with a radically new thought.
Paolozzi provided a context for his abiding interest in collage when he spoke about his decision to study in France in the late 1940s, where he met artists including Giacometti, Brancusi, Arp and Braque, and was exposed to the mainstream of European modernism:
I still find that French approach, the need, the passion, to consider and handle things at the same time quite endearing – and very necessary for me. And it also justifies the reason too I had to leave London in the 1940s and go to France – just to show that I was not such an oddball. And I have lived by that ever since, the concern with different materials, disparate ideas – and to me that is the excitement; it becomes almost a description of the creative act – to juggle with these things.
Disparate borrowings in Paolozzi’s work are fused into new wholes that communicate distinctive contemporary states of mind.
I was fortunate to have been befriended by Eduardo Paolozzi in the mid-1990s. He regularly sent me all manner of things in the post, and I reciprocated: an arrangement that I relished. For many years I kept a box in the corner of my studio with ‘EP’ stencilled on one side. In it would go a variety of curiosities, or what might appear to be plain old junk. When my computer could not take any more upgrades I was stuck with a functioning object that was obsolete. I took a screwdriver to it and broke it down into a pile of circuit boards and components which all went into the EP box. This deconstruction made it to Dovehouse Street, and who knows where the bits ultimately ended up? Were they pressed into wet plaster? Or are they somewhere in the Dean Gallery in Edinburgh, where Paolozzi’s studio has long resided? Perhaps they were chucked into a skip. Whichever it was, I cannot help but wonder if the creative afterlife of those parts from my old computer might have been more significant than the service it performed in actual life. This postal exchange went on for a number of years, and I understand from Robin Spencer (Paolozzi’s biographer and editor of his writings) that a polka dot stiletto shoe, popped into the post with Eduardo’s address written on the sole, is now archived in the Tate stores.
I have crates full of Eduardo’s time capsules, if that is not too fanciful a name for standard issue office folders in an array of drab colours with ‘Teresa’ pencilled in a rather childlike scrawl on the flap, and all filled to bursting with pictures, articles and snippets torn from magazines, or ferreted out from Dovehouse Street junk mail. A distant cousin of extreme sports, this is extreme borrowing. An ordinary white envelope addressed to Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, 107 Dovehouse Street, London SW3, containing an unsolicited letter, now forms part of a much-treasured collection: a Duchampian piece, to say the least. I remember Eduardo searching for a folder he wanted to give me while I was with him in his studio. He was full of concentration as he delved deeply into heaps of paper and other objects, not in the least bit daunted by the amount of stuff that was in his way. Trying to be helpful, I picked up the nearest folder and asked innocently, ‘Should I just have this one?’ He examined it closely, saw that it did not have my name on it, dismissed it and carried on systematically moving piles around the table until he found the Teresa folder. Every scrap, every item contained in these files was carefully selected for the intended recipients. The general themes running through mine are costume, pattern, fine art and the human form from antiquity to vintage glamour. Interestingly, he did not just post them; they were sent by Special Delivery, thereby guaranteeing their arrival and, more to the point, insuring the contents – investing them with considerable monetary value. It was not lost on me that, passed on by Eduardo, his junk mail acquired special status. Some twenty years on, just enough time has passed for me to feel a little nostalgic about the graphics, the advertisements, the language and tone of voice of these cuttings. Fast-forward fifty years and they will be the new Mr. Peanut and Campbell’s soup tins – the very stuff of pop art.
Sometime in the early 1950s Paolozzi began making collages from the covers of Time magazine, cutting them up and reassembling them in a consistent and systematic way, while staying true to the standardised and established look and feel of the originals. Famously, the weekly magazine displays on its cover a portrait of a newsworthy person, whose head is framed in Time’s signature red border. Paolozzi upheld and enforced the Time magazine brand while reimagining its content. And, should anyone wish to identify any or each of the individual covers from which Paolozzi borrowed slithers, a tour of the magazine’s archive will allow them to do just that. With every cutting traceable, the artist remains fully accountable for their reuse: accepting full responsibility, as it were. It is eloquent testimony to the fact that these branded images are not merely taken, but borrowed and imaginatively reinterpreted.
Eduardo once told me that he would rather visit a concrete factory than an art gallery – ‘Inspiration is where you find it,’ he averred. He described video art as ‘minimal talent with maximum exposure’, and gruffly sniffed at the entrance to the Royal Academy’s late 1990s Joseph Beuys exhibition as we passed it on our way to the cafe. Despite his preference for contraption over exposition, he took me to the RA’s landmark 1900: Art at the Crossroads show (2000), rather poetically on the number 19 bus (we made it eventually). Covered in plaster dust and lugging his bag of rubbish-treasure, he was aggrieved to see that ‘his’ seat on the bus had been taken. The number 19 was very full and we had no option but to sit in two aisle seats, one in front of the other. Sitting behind Eduardo, I noticed how the young woman beside him was most uncomfortable, pressing herself as closely as possible to the window, fixing her gaze at the glass and beyond – no doubt feeling that some kind of undesirable had violated her space. In stark contrast, on arrival at the RA, we had barely entered the doors when a simpering, hand-wringing man in a suit rushed to greet the artist, and all but bowed down before him, placing great emphasis on his title, Sir Eduardo Paolozzi. The metamorphosis from vagrant to VIP was accomplished in under a minute. Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder – only the individual can determine what is meat and what is poison, discarded sweet wrapper or priceless jewel.
This is an abridged version of the essay published in The Art of Borrowing available from Thomas Heneage Art Books, 42 Duke Street. St James’s, London SW1Y 6DJ – email@example.com.
Teresa Monachino studied at the Chelsea School of Art and is a Graphic Designer. While Teresa’s work covers many design disciplines, from branding and advertising to publishing, she is best known for her typographic style and love of words. She is the author and designer of Words Fail Me published by Phaidon, now a regular feature in Private Eye magazine. Her follow-up book Around the World with the Bodoni Family is a witty A-Z exploration of the typeface. Teresa has won many design awards including two D&AD and has featured widely in the design press. She is a visiting lecturer and recently gave a TED talk in Washington DC concerning the perils of bad communication within the health sector; An A-Z Sicktionary. Teresa has collaborated with, among others, artist Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, graphic design giant Alan Fletcher and actor Sir Sean Connery while her clients have included the BBC, Design Museum, UK Government and Tate Galleries as well as many publishing houses worldwide.