As soon as you enter The World Goes Pop, one of the Tate Modern’s current exhibitions (running 17 September 2015 – 24 January 2016), you are faced with an explosion of colours and eye-catching shapes. I must confess that, before seeing the exhibition, my ideas on pop art tended towards generalisation. I associated the movement exclusively with Andy Warhol’s repetitive prints and Roy Lichtenstein’s dotted, comic-like works. The greatest merit of The World Goes Pop is its clarification of such hazy notions, its exploration of the ways in which art historians are re-thinking what pop art really is and was.
The first few rooms focus mainly on art as political statement, works concerned with conveying ideological messages to the masses. One of the first works I found particularly remarkable was Bernard Rancillac’s Pilules, Capsules, Conciliaboules (1966), a picture split in two halves. On the left, we see a foetus in a womb floating in space; on the right we have a close up of a girl whispering something in a friend’s ear, alluding to the debate over contraceptives and abortion that took place in France in the late ‘60s. The work condenses the two dimensions of abortion: on the one hand, the mystery of life and the bio-ethical side of the debate; on the other, the highly personal, intimate experiences that accompany any pregnancy.
The theme of the following set of rooms is the domestic environment (‘Pop at home’), which then fuses with the examination of the image of women constructed by popular culture (‘Pop bodies’). The works showcased here are a reaction to the idea of the female body offered up for consumption by the male viewer; they are often explicit, often aggressive. The exhibition cleverly tempers them by alternating big spaces with smaller rooms. One of these more compact spaces hosts an installation by Slovakian artist Jana Želibská entitled Kandariya-Mahadeva (1941), a high, white tower of juxtaposed silhouettes of women, with mirrors in the place of their genitals. As the exhibition catalogue explains, the mirrors ‘sabotage any attempted voyeurism’. But there is more to be read into this work; it makes you face your own sexuality, suggesting that one’s sex life should be a personal thing and that everyone has a different way of living it. Želibská’s installation demonstrates that art can be pop, feminist, and beautiful all at once. Though speaking in discreet tones, the work does not lose any of its communicative power.
The final part of the exhibition is centred on consumerism, a recurring theme within pop art. The very last room, in particular, isfilled with reference to commercial products, advertisements, and material culture, extending even to the wall-paper, which represents the Laughing Cow (La vache qui rit). Bucan Art (1972) by Boris Bućan is an emblematic example: it is a series of paintings featuring the word ‘art’ in modified corporate logos (Coca-Cola, IBM, Swissair, BMW). Bućan’s work responds to the omnipresence of global brands, media and advertising, where life is homogenised, assumed that one-size-fits-all. Also notable is the cycle of paintings called Post Art (1973-4) by Vitaly Komar & Alexander Melamid, where emblematic pop art works by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, and Robert Indiana are portrayed as if they had survived a nuclear bomb. The two artists bring into question the value of canonical artworks over time. By including these as its closing works, the exhibition seems to imply that Pop art as we have always conceived is at least to be reconsidered in light of the exhibition just seen.
The World Goes Pop expands the concept of ‘pop art’ not only as far as themes are concerned, but also in terms of geographical provenance. The exhibition overflows with international artists, mostly unknown to the general public. Among them are Romanian Cornel Brudașcu, who sees war and modernity ‘in technicolour’, and Cuban Raúl Martínez, whose art captures the revolutionary atmosphere of Cuba in the sixties and seventies. But the artist that stole my attention was Iranian Parviz Tanavoli, whose works are situated in a room devoted to ‘Folk Pop’. Once again, bright colours are used to convey serious messages.
In his Disciples of Sheikh San’an (1975), Tanavoli represents vivaciously coloured towers, but with birds and prisoners trapped behind the window bars. The work draws from Persian literature: Sheikh San’an renounces his religion after falling in love with a Christian maiden, and has to face persecution at the hands of his disciples before being able to marry the woman he loves. Disciples, like so many other works featured in The World Goes Pop, shows that appealing shapes and vibrant colours by no means suggest naïve messages. In the variety of artists and themes it embraces, the exhibition foregrounds pop art’s global resonance: it shows that the movement was not the sole property of Western Europe and the US. The fifties saw the entire world – not just Western Europe and the United States – go pop.
The World Goes Pop runs at the Tate Modern until 24 January 2016. For more information and to book tickets, please visit their website.