Even in the 1940s Eduardo Paolozzi viewed machines and our ever-increasing reliance on technology as something to be feared. Though they would pop up in his artworks as luxurious if somewhat ludicrous domestic appliances, more often than not they appeared as violent and dispassionate tools of authority (think more Terminator than Henry the Hoover). The views of one of Europe’s most radical and innovative post-war artists had been shaped by his experiences during World War II, when he witnessed first-hand the destructiveness of modern technology, and its capacity to end life on an industrial scale.
A child of Italian immigrants living in Scotland, Eduardo Paolozzi and the male members of his family were rounded up and imprisoned after Italy declared war on Britain in 1940. Being just a 16-year old boy he was allowed to leave prison early, but on the day of his release he discovered that his father, uncle, and grandfather had all been killed on their way to an internment camp in Canada. Speculatively shot at by a German U-boat with its last remaining torpedo, the internees had tried desperately to escape on lifeboats, only for them to be shot at by the British sailors still on board. Of the 682 people who died from a German attack, 480 were German and Italian citizens.
“I don't want to make prints that will help people to escape from the terrible world,” Paolozzi once said about his focus on technology, “I want to remind them.” In stunning artworks such as the six screenprints from the series Zero Energy Experiment Pile, the fighter planes, war machines, robots, rockets, and bombs that proliferate are featured alongside mechanical dissections of human biological systems. Suggesting the entwining of human and machine destiny, and the very end of humanity as we know it.
In many of Paolozzi’s hugely famous bronze heads are the rough impressions of nuts, bolts, and found objects. Like the wreckage of an ancient industrial state, they appear pathetic, terrifying and comically hodgepodge all at once. Dislocated and fragmented, they appear to allude to the aftermath of nuclear destruction, and to the fear and existential angst that was gripping Europe at the time that they were made.
After a second spell in prison—an elaborate ruse this time to get himself out of this conscription in the Pioneer Corps—Eduardo Paolozzi enrolled at the Slade School of Art in London. It was here that he found his artistic voice, and he never looked back. After spending a few years in Paris and meeting Giacometti, Brancusi, and Georges Braque, he returned to London, his mind filled with Surrealist iconography and provocative new idioms with which to depict mass industrial society.
Insatiably curious, Eduardo Paolozzi’s artwork encompassed the classical and the ephemeral, and from digging around in roadside containers to long afternoons sketching in the British Museum, he began translating this vast world of experience into his prolific and bottomless body of work. Paolozzi’s embrace of the collage technique allowed him to make radical new unities from seemingly unrelated images. His fetishizing of the unconventional that melded the crude and trivial with the weighty and profound, was unlike anything that post-war austerity Britain had ever seen before—and pre-empted key hallmarks of Pop Art by almost a decade.
In one of these pioneering early works, I was a Rich Man’s Plaything, 1947—the first artwork to ever feature the word “Pop”—the artist committed to the direct source of his interests, even if that interest derived from ephemera and everyday advertising. Art no longer needed to be transformed by an artistic imagination to become art, it was right there, right there in front of you. But despite being known as the “Godfather of Pop Art”, Paolozzi would later come to lambaste the movement, preferring to be identified with Surrealism, than be described “by some term called ‘Pop’, which immediately means that you dive into a barrel of Coca-Cola bottles”.
The visually lavish exhibition now open at the Berlinische Galerie, “Eduardo Paolozzi, Lots of Pictures—Lots of Fun” is a thrilling tour through the four main stages of his working life. Throughout the exhibition, his source materials of American consumer culture and its dizzying mix of seduction and technology is startling and infectious. In Take-Off, 1972, an American fighter plane is authorized for take-off just as an ice-skater launches herself in the air. A dynamic response to the image above of a plane, the work is a perfect encapsulation of what Paolozzi called advertisings’ “interfusion of sex and technology”.
Considering his unpromising beginnings, Eduardo Paolozzi’s rise to the highest echelons of the British art establishment was unprecedented. Knighted in 1989 and already a fellow of the Royal Academy, he became a celebrated figure in Chelsea, and through his generosity with his limited edition prints (giving them out like there was no tomorrow), he always ate for free at his preferred local restaurants. He remained a proactive and driven man right up until 2001, when a near-fatal stroke kept him in a wheelchair until his death in 2005, aged 81.
His great friend J.G. Ballard once wrote that “If the entire twentieth century were to vanish in some huge calamity, it would be possible to reconstitute a large part of it from Paolozzi’s sculpture and screenprints”, so greedily did he devour, reconstitute and revitalize the world he found around him. That Eduardo Paolozzi’s art was ahead of its time was never in doubt, but in the era of drone warfare and the looming job Armageddon—as technology becomes ever more sophisticated—that he so portentously configured the conflicts and concerns of man in the 21st century is a revelation.
Eduardo Paolozzi, Lots of Pictures—Lots of Fun can be viewed now and up until the 28th of May 2018 at the Berlinische Galerie, Berlin.