Whaam! Roy Lichtenstein at Tate Modern (BBC4)

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In previous years I might have popped in to the Tate Modern to see their Roy Lichtenstein Retrospective, but in these more austere times I’ll just have to settle instead for BBC4’s hour long documentary on the 1960s ‘pop art’ artist famous for his large painted reproductions of comic book panels.

lichtensteinHis early paintings – using panels from war and teen romance comic books of the era as a basis for his work – are famous world-wide and sell for millions whenever they come up at auction. By rights these are works that should really appeal to me, since from an early age I loved and appreciated the work that goes into illustrating comic books – not just the original artist’s, but also the technical process of reproducing colour halftones though screen printing. I used to examine my Marvel and DC comics close up to try seeing exactly how those fields of dots achieved the illusion of graduated colour in the reader’s eye.

Perhaps that boyhood love of the original comics is what gets in the way of my really warming to Lichtenstein. When this BBC4 programme showed the original source material next to the iconic Lichtenstein painting they inspired, all I could think of was: so, it’s a copy. How come Lichtenstein has got rich copying some other artist’s work who probably got paid just a few dollars for his original efforts?

The programme does do a good job of showing the changes that Lichtenstein brought when creating his own version of the scene: eliminating distracting detail, balancing the composition while at the same time making things bigger and bolder. The keylines are more assertive and the colours more primary, and the soft dots of the original print are replaced by huge dime-sized circles applied by roller through a stencil. In fact the most intriguing thing about Lichtenstein by far was his working method, with the rotating easel he developed right up there at the top of the list.

But watching the archive footage of Lichtenstein meticulously at work with his rulers and set squares just confirmed to me in my mind that he was a great technician making a lovely job at producing a full size reproduction of an original with much more charm, emotion and vitality than Lichtenstein’s own rather clinical executions. It absolutely did nothing to persuade me that there was any genuine artistry there: he was borrowing from others while bringing little of his own or himself to the picture.

That sensation continued as presenter Alastair Sooke showed off some of Lichtenstein’s later, less well-known works: there were parodies of Picassos and Dalis done in Lichtenstein’s trademark comic book style complete with oversize dots, and then more subtle versions of traditional Japanese wall hangings. This was clearly convincing for Sooke, but I was much more on the side of one of the programme’s interviewees – graphic novel artist Dave Gibbons, who created Watchmen with writer Alan Moore. Gibbons – whose work I remember consciously admiring even as far back as the first issue of 2000AD magazine in 1977 – was quite unequivocal in deriding Lichtenstein’s freeloading from comic book artists in the way that he had, and I have to say that I finished watching this hour-long show very much on his side.

All the time it seemed to me that here was an artist who was all method and no vision, all homage and no originality beyond the combination of a few found styles utilised by others. That’s unlike Lichtenstein’s contemporary Andy Warhol, who while he may have started with an existing item such as a tin of tomato soup still managed to work that into something quite different and wholly distinctive by the finish of his process.

The programme made me want to check out some more original art from comic book artists – even as far back as Georges Remi whose work under the pen name Hergé on the Tintin strips is itself worthy of a Tate retrospective. More so, I feel, than Lichtenstein: but the huge popularity of the show only serves to prove that I’m clearly wrong and quite in the minority of this one. And happy to be so.

Whaam! Roy Lichtenstein at Tate Modern was most recently shown on BBC on Monday, March 25 and is currently on iPlayer at time of writing. The Lichtenstein exhibition, the first full-scale retrospective of the artist in over twenty years, continues at the Tate Modern on the South Bank until May 27.

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