British Abstracts in Focus: Eduardo Paolozzi

3 - 25 September 2020
  • Often recognised as the one of the founding fathers of the British Pop Art movement, Eduardo Paolozzi was a leading...

    Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, Untitled (Relief), c.1949-50, Terracotta (8.3 x 33 x 38.1 cm)

    Often recognised as the one of the founding fathers of the British Pop Art movement, Eduardo Paolozzi was a leading figure in post-war British art, and is well known for his diverse oeuvre of work in many mediums including collage, drawing, and ceramic.  Untitled (Relief), c.1949-50  is a rare surviving example of Paolozzi’s relief works from his early career. Dating from between his return from Paris in 1949, to teach at Central School of Arts and Crafts in London, and the staging of his first exhibition as a co-founder of Independent Group in 1952, the sculpture is a rare survivor of the artists short lived practice of installation art, and an example of his early exploration of mark-making and the development of his own unique visual language. 


    As an artist who regularly worked in two dimensions as well as three, relief was arguably the sculptural medium Paolozzi liked and understood best of all. His first relief works were made in his small room on the rue Visconti, Paris. They were ‘modelled from clay – small reliefs modelled in the negative partly through reasons of poverty but really a continuation of a working method evolved in the sculpture school at the Slade – at the time a necessity for directness.’ (Eduardo Paolozzi, 1978) These Paris reliefs were exhibited in his first solo show at the Mayor gallery in London, Drawings and Bas-Reliefs, 1948The small wall-mounted plaster reliefs, developed on Paolozzi’s enduring fascination with the diametrical relationship between the manufactured and the organic, and how human understanding of nature transplants physical and mechanical patterns onto the principal biological structures found in nature. The works were produced simply by forcing man-made materials into the plaster surface, and seek to demonstrate the negative space left behind purely observable.


    By 1950, Paolozzi was producing a number of plaster heads with ‘drawn’ surfaces covered with calligraphic elements. These early works contained the seeds of much of the informal abstract language of mark-making composed of geometric shapes and lines, that he subsequently developed in his drawings, lithographs and textiles.

  • A contemporary photograph of the relief from the Tate Archive (illustrated above) is one in a group of photographs taken...

    Nigel Henderson, Eduardo Paolozzi, Alice and Peter Smithson, seated in an unidentified street [c.1949–c.1956]. Tate Archive

    A contemporary photograph of the relief from the Tate Archive (illustrated above) is one in a group of photographs taken by Nigel Henderson, sevral of which were included in a preparatory collage by Henderson and Paolozzi  entitled 'Untitled (Study for Parallel of Life and Art)', 1952, (Tate, London). This collage helps to date the relief more accurately, between his return from Paris and the start of his collaboration with Henderson on the ground-breaking exhibition Parallel of Life and Art held in March 1952 at the ICA.


    During his time with the Independent Group, Paolozzi helped to stage two  exhibitions which were to challenge established exhibition practices and subvert all notions of traditionalism in art all together. In 1953, alongside Henderson and the Smithson’s, Paolozzi helped to stage Parallel of Life and Art, an interdisciplinary exhibition hosted by the ICA that explored their joint pursuit of art autre and the rejection of all strict conventions of beauty and form. 


    The exhibition filled a single room in the ICA and was made up of various items in mixed media including photography, collage, and drawings, all of which was hung and lit in an irregular fashion, reminiscent of the non-conformist exhibitions of the Surrealists and Dadaists in the earlier part of the century. The imagery was particularly significant, combining elements of the natural and the man-made with the effect of highlighting the viewers orientation between ones innate human behaviours and the world around them. In his study of this show, Ben Highmore wrote “These are images that take the notion of ‘art informel’ and extend it into the world itself, to include the excoriated surfaces of the world, crowd activities, war and new forms of technically facilitated perception.” The show provided an alternative commentary on human activity through the medium of everyday objects and technology juxtaposed against the natural world. Crucially this provided the Independent Group with a new visual lexicon of symbols and artificial constellations, often gathered from pop culture ephemera, pages from technical journals, found objects and photographs, which demonstrated the shift of post-war art towards anthropologic practice.

  • Exploring this language of mark-making, particularly from an ethnographic perspective, was crucial to Paolozzi’s work. The influence of tribal and ethnographic art can be seen in his work from his collage and textile designs, to his metal-work and ceramics – to which our work belongs. 


    His early mark-making  demonstrates a calculated approach to producing sculpted visceral, scarified surfaces through a series of controlled movements and actions. Whilst his international counterparts - notably Lucio Fontana in Italy and Jackson Pollock in the US – were exploring art as a record of physical action through spatial interventions and action -painting, Paolozzi used his mark-making to suggest a more conscious-based activity which provides evidence of direct and calculated intervention with the world: a practice that goes as far back into pre- history as wall painting that plays an enduring role in the history of art.