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Sunday 26 June 2016


The new extension to the Tate Modern museum opened last week. I only need the slimmest of excuses to visit London, so I went to see it. The new part (called the Switch House) mainly houses contemporary art installations, while the original building (which used to be Bankside Power Station) contains older works of “modern art”. Prominent among the latter is Roy Lichtenstein’s iconic painting WHAAM!, pictured above. This was far and away my favourite item in the whole museum – not surprisingly, given the irresistible combination of comic-book nostalgia and military aircraft nostalgia!

Roy Lichtenstein was a controversial artist, because so many of his paintings copied the layout of published comic-book panels (for numerous examples, see this page). But I think it’s wrong to belittle his work for this reason. Yes, it’s a shame that the original artist goes uncredited, but the artistic medium, display context, gigantic size and sheer painstaking precision of Lichtenstein’s works make them totally different from the original (a fact that isn’t always clear when you see small side-by-side comparisons on a web page). In any case, the comic-book industry is much more relaxed about the "swiping" of panel layouts than it is about, say, the unlicensed use of lucrative franchise characters.

The display caption to WHAAM! states that it is “based on an image from All American Men of War published by DC comics in 1962”. But looking at its Wikipedia entry the situation is a little more complicated than that. The basic layout (including the words “I pressed the fire control and ahead of me rockets blazed through the sky” and the sound effect “WHAAM”) does indeed come from a single panel in All American Men of War #89. However, the American aircraft in that panel is clearly a jet – probably a Korean-vintage F-86 Sabre. The plane in Lichtenstein’s painting looks more like a P-51 Mustang – and Wikipedia makes a good case for that being taken from a panel in the following issue, #90. Lichtenstein’s victim aircraft is noticeably different from either of those panels – Wikipedia suggests it comes from #89 again, but from a different story in that issue. Whatever sources Lichtenstein used, I still think the result is one of the greatest works of art of the 20th century.

As regards the new Switch House, I have to confess that most of the items on display went over my head. For the most part I mean that figuratively, but the small object pictured below was literally over my head ... because it was hanging from the ceiling in one of the rooms (sorry it’s out-of-focus – my camera was on maximum digital zoom). Regular readers will know I have an uncanny ability to spot things that “look a bit like a dick” (see for example this statue of Balzac or these 1940s comic-book aliens). The work pictured below is a sculpture by Louise Bourgeois entitled Fillette, which is French for “little girl”. I guess that’s what it’s meant to depict ... but it still looks like a dick to me.


Anonymous said...

They should have displayed photos of Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Nigel Farage who also seem like dicks.

Andrew May said...

Hmmm, very political Colin. Not sure about that.

My blog normally gets about 100 to 120 views in the first 24 hours - this weekend it's struggled to get half that. I assume everyone is too busy being outraged/overjoyed at the Brexit result.

Anonymous said...

I don't know why it's "very political", Andrew, considering it's what half the population thinks and hopefully all those Leave voters who were lied to will think it too. Anyway, that filette figurine actually made me think of those Paleolithic (or maybe it's Neolithic) carvings like the Venus Of Willendorf.

Andrew May said...

It's just that I try to avoid anything to do with modern politics, because it's all so hate-filled and adversarial, and no-one ever changes their views no matter what the other side says. The only major politician who seems to be above that sort of thing (and was honest enough to admit there might be shades of grey in the referendum) looks like he's going to brought down by his own shadow cabinet without being given a chance to run for PM. So it's all very depressing, and the less said about it the better (especially on this blog, which is supposed to be happily nostalgic).

But that's a really good point about the Venus of Willendorf - it hadn't occurred to me but there may well be some influence there.