Sunday, 10 November 2013

Pauline Boty: Pop Artist and Woman, Wolverhampton Art Gallery (1 June-16 November 2013)

Colour Her Gone, 1962

The name of Pauline Boty will not be familiar to many people and despite being a founder member of the British Pop movement and contemporary of Peter Blake, Derek Boshier and David Hockney, art history has not been kind to the artist.  Boty’s work fell into obscurity after the artist’s untimely death at the age of 28 in 1966 and her name was almost obliterated from narratives on British Pop Art until as recently as the late 1990s, when David Mellor rescued her canvases from rotting in her brother’s barn.  Since then, Mellor along with Sue Watling and Sue Tate have worked tirelessly to rehabilitate her name and the importance on her work within the movement.  Her name is increasingly included in art historical surveys of British Pop Art yet astonishingly despite their efforts, only two monographs of Boty’s work have been published and this relatively low key exhibition at the Wolverhampton Art Gallery is the first survey of her work held in a public gallery and in fact the first solo exhibition since 1998.

Self Portrait, c, 1955

In a relatively small triangular room, rather annoyingly lit with changing colour lighting, twenty eight pieces of Boty’s work, including ten large scale canvases and six early collage works, chart the artist’s development from her time at the Wimbledon School of Art between 1954-58 and then the Royal College of Art to her most productive and successful years between 1961 and 1966.  Her early self portrait of 1995, painted when she was just 17 is an early indicator of just how talented this young woman was.  Collages such as A Big Hand (1960-61) and Untitled (hand, secateurs and children) of the same year evidence Boty’s skill at the delicate balance of composition and juxtaposition of imagery which can make or break a collage. 

A Big Hand, 1960-61
However, it is her large scale rarely exhibited canvases which really were a feast for the eyes.  It was truly and honour to see these paintings at close range.  They are exquisitely and boldly painted, both in terms of the handling of the paint and their subject matter.  Boty was a wholly contemporary artist of her time.  Her paintings of Marilyn Monroe were produced a year after the movie star’s death.  She painted Scandal ’63 in the very year that the Profumo affair featured in national newspapers.  Boty’s mixing of figuration and abstraction in her paintings mirrored her collage work.  The catalogue refers to Boty’s paintings as exposing the subjective experience of an autonomous female sexuality and turning her lustful gaze gleefully on male objects of desire.  They were also extremely political and as such precursor feminist sensibilities at an extremely challenging time for British women.  The manner in which she was portrayed in the media as well as her own portrayal of her sexuality in her work blurred the lines between emancipation and exploitation, a problem which has faced my many female artists.

Portrait of Derek Marlowe with Unknown Ladies, 1963
 5-4-3-2-1, 1963


Boty is remembered as a beautiful, Bardot lookalike, the quintessential swinging Sixties girl.  She immersed herself in contemporary popular culture, both on and off the canvas.  Interspersed between the paintings were collections of some of the numerous photographs taken by Michael Ward in 1963 of Boty posing provocatively with a selection of her work.  A number of magazine articles were also included where Boty is portrayed as an alluring beauty first and an artist second (if at all).  The publicity she attracted was comparable to Tracey Emin in the mid 1990s.  Yet Boty’s untimely death cannot be solely responsible for her virtual erasure from art history.  Egon Schiele, as just one example, died at the same age and his work has not suffered the same fate.  The Tate Gallery owns just one of Boty’s paintings, The Only Blonde in the World (1963), which they only bought this year, and this, along with the treatment of Boty’s work (physically and academically) are sad indictments of bias which can continue against some female artists, even today.

Pauline Boty by Michael Ward, 1963

The exhibition is transferring to Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, West Sussex from 30 November to 16 February 2014 and I would urge people to visit and discover one of the most important female artists this country has produced and which we have still yet to fully embrace as it has, for example, Barbara Hepworth or Sarah Lucas.

The Only Blonde in the Worlds, 1963