As a major new retrospective opens at the Whitechapel Gallery, Holly Black examines the pop art polymath’s experimental approach to fashion, textiles and homewares
Born in 1924 to Italian immigrant parents in the Scottish port town of Leith, Eduardo Paolozzi spent his youth hanging around the ice cream parlour where his family worked. “Surrounded by advertising, by packaging, by the display of everyday items in the shop front; these assemblages and arrangements all informed the collage principle that is at the heart of how he operated as an artist,” says Whitechapel curator Daniel Hermann. This obsession with the consumable culture was the key component to Paolozzi’s revolutionary approach to art, one that included an enormous amount of experimentation in a range of different media. As Hermann continues, “his ideas fit together, get smashed up and recombined into new and constantly even long forms. He was a sculptor, printmaker, draughtsman, textile designer and ceramicist.” Here, we explore some of these investigations and collaborations in fashion and the decorative arts.
Jules-François Crahay, head designer for Lanvin, was so struck by Paolozzi’s Moonstrips Empire News prints that he asked the artist to collaborate on a series of garments for his Spring/Summer 1971 collection. In lieu of royalties the artist asked that the fashion house donate two pieces, Malaga and Djerba, to the V&A. The latter (and arguably more impressive of the two) is currently on display at the Whitechapel. This vibrant, geometric two-piece features gigantic bell sleeves and a fully pleated skirt, adorned with kaleidoscopic patterns that seem to hark back to ancient forms of weaving as well as mimicking futuristic binary codes.
The couturier was not the first to understand the marketability of Paolozzi’s joyous printwork. In the early 1950s the artist had already collaborated with Horrockses to produce a full skirted cocktail dress that perfectly encapsulates the creative boom that followed World War Two. Predominantly a yellow hue, the dress features abstract, monochrome blocks that appear candidly scribbled onto the fabric by a commanding hand. It is currently on display flanked by two bronzes that were created from assemblages of mechanical detritus at around the same period. With any other artist such a wildly varied output might seem disparate, but Paolozzi manages to evoke an overarching sense of unity in his revolutionary methods of collage and accumulation, whatever the outcome might be.
In 1954 Paolozzi partnered with fellow artist and Independent Group (the radical collective that shunned elitism and staged the seminal exhibition This Is Tomorrow at the Whitechapel) member Nigel Henderson to form Hammer Prints Ltd. The company’s anarchic mantra was to manifest an “attack on the craft field using the silk-screen as the media to be exploited”. These subversive ambitions were nevertheless extremely popular, with patterns that exemplified complex printmaking processes. For example Sgraffito incorporated photo blocks and engraved plaster, while a series of city-based scenes evoke the ramshackle nature of urban living. Portobello employed motifs inspired by the famous marketplace including vegetables, clocks and pieces of machinery, while Townscape features an impossible tangle of buildings and street names. These patterns were produced as wallpapers and furnishing fabric in a number of different colourways and the artist often reused off-cuts and spares to reincorporate back into new collages.
Inspired by his Lanvin collaboration, Paolozzi produced a similar design for a series of Wedgwood ceramics. Known as Variation on a Geometric Theme the set consisted of six individual silkscreen-printed bone china plates, in a limited edition of 200. Each plate exhibited colour variations and complex networks of collages patterns, some of which were overlaid with gold leaf. The artist went on to produce several more collaborations with the acclaimed brand and even created a scaled-down, limited-edition version of his enormous sculpture of Isaac Newton, commissioned to stand outside the British Library. He produced a select run in black basalt for Wedgwood, to coincide with the sculpture’s installation.
Under the Hammer Prints Company Paolozzi also created an unusual range of tiles, bowls and trays called Sea Beasts, which also went on to become another successful wallpaper design. In a departure from more abstracted works these household objects featured a surface pattern comprising of magnified underwater creatures including crabs, eels, shrimp and seashells. This far more figurative example is further testament to Paolozzi’s insatiable interest in the world around him, and the ultimate diversity and never-ending playfulness of his practice.
Eduardo Paolozzi runs until May 24, 2017 at the Whitechapel Gallery, London.