The Invisible Women of Pop Art

While you lot were all watching Eurovision, I was watching a very different sort of pop. BBC2’s Culture Show was running a special about the women who were prominent in the Pop Art movement back in the 1960s. It is now available on iPlayer for those who can access such things. The link is here. And here’s an extract from the program blurb:

However back in the day, pop art was not just a boys’ club. The scene was full of female artists, tussling with sexuality, violence and consumer culture every bit as much as their male counterparts. Strangely, their work has been consigned to the margins of history — they started out together, shared the same art dealers and were shown in the same exhibitions, but as the boys’ prices skyrocketed, the girls’ stayed put. By the end of the sixties they had pretty much been erased from the pop narrative.

Sound familiar? Yes, it is exactly the sort of thing that people have been complaining happens to women science fiction writers.

Of course, while I am familiar with most of the SF writers, I knew very little about Pop Art beyond the few men who have become legendary: Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Peter Blake. I was therefore delighted to discover a whole bunch of women artists who were famous at the time, even if their achievements have been subsequently erased.

My favorite work from the show was Pauline Boty’s portrait of Lewis Morley, which sadly I can’t find online. Overall, however, I really liked Jann Haworth‘s soft sculpture. I was instantly reminded of the famous Trebor Softmints commercial that used Cockney Rebel’s “Mr Soft” for the soundtrack. The author of that commercial claims it was inspired by the work of another soft sculpture pioneer, Claes Oldenberg, but the figures look very like Haworth’s and in any case I had learned from the program that many of Oldenberg’s work was sewn by his wife, Coosje van Bruggen. Much as Haworth’s contribution to the Sgt. Pepper album cover has been erased from much of art history, so van Bruggen’s role in creating work with Oldenburg tends to be forgotten.

Along the way we learned a little bit about cultural prejudice against Pop Art. I was amused to see Huw Wheldon fulminating about pernicious, low-brow influences such as movies, pop music and science fiction.

Anyway, it was a fascinating program which I am glad I got to see. And Alastair Sooke did a fine job of presenting it. Because yes, no one would have paid any attention to what the show had to say about women artists, had a man not been out front to say it, eh BBC?

Bah! Here’s Mr Soft.

And here’s the original with actual Steve Harley vocals.