Romance, Glamour and Realism at Tate Modern’s Lichtenstein Show

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Romance, glamour and realism are what Ralph Lauren once called “a great combination.” These three hallmarks of classic style proved enduringly desirable at London Fashion Week last month. This year, there’s no need to wait for the S/S 14 shows for your next fix. I found the same irresistible trio away from the catwalk in the capital’s premier modern art venue, Tate Modern, where a retrospective of pop artist Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997) runs until late May.

“Oh Jeff, I love you too, but…” whispers a teary blonde clutching a telephone receiver. This is romance, according to Lichtenstein’s paintbrush. Just as war and romance make perfect partners in Hollywood, so too are they paired up in his art. Drama is everything. Star-crossed lovers embrace with the same contrast of despair and heroism as a fighter pilot shooting down the enemy with an orgasmic ‘wham’. My favourite piece is a drowning brunette who bobs her head above the water to shout, “I’d rather sink than call Brad for help.” It’s a tragi-comic situation we can all relate to, that defiant willingness to suffer needlessly rather than swallow our pride to dial an ex.

Lichtenstein: A Retrospective

Lichtenstein: A Retrospective

The exhibition oozes glamour. Inspired by 1960s comics and magazines, these paintings are synonymous with that enviable vintage look – all bouncing bouffants, seductive curves and movie-star lashes to rival Marilyn Monroe. However gorgeous these women may be, Lichtenstein makes sure you don’t aspire to their lifestyle. He paints elegant hands with perfectly lacquered pillar-box red nails, but they are engaged in the most mundane tasks, from sponging down walls to dusting furniture. Making ironic use of both pictorial and cultural stereotypes, he constructs a witty pro-feminist critique of society’s norms.

This is how realism enters Lichtenstein’s work. With its comic book aesthetic of strong lines, geometric dots and block colours, his artistic style is far from being ‘realistic’. The meaning, however, is utterly focused on the real. In the same way, it surprised me to discover that a man best known for appropriating imagery from comics was most interested in art itself. His mid-career pop art images of brushstrokes open up questions on the artistic movement in vogue during this era, abstract expressionism. He applies his trademark Ben-Day dots to rework traditions like the nude or Chinese landscape painting with stunning results. He even dares to repaint masters from Titian to Picasso in his signature style.

When the drama of romance fades and vintage glamour melts away, you’re left to focus on the realities of precisely this, Lichtenstein’s style. It’s beautiful, clever, and brilliantly original – and that’s what I call a great combination.

Lichtenstein: A Retrospective, Tate Modern, London. 21 Feb – 27 May, open until 20.00 on Sundays. Tickets cost £14 or £7 for National Art Pass/Art Fund members

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