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The Art of Roy Lichtenstein

Giugno 2010
La pittura di Roy Lichtenstein raccontata da un’esperta d’arte americana. A cura di English Corner, un’associazione che promuove lo studio dell’inglese parlando d’arte, di fotografia, di cucina...
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Kara Spoonhour
Kara Spoonhour
Drowning Girl by Roy Lichtenstein
Drowning Girl by Roy Lichtenstein

Speaker: Kara Spoonhour (Standard American accent)

“You can’t do this! You just can’t do this!” said Leo Castelli, a New York gallery owner, to Roy Lichtenstein in 1962. When the Italian-born art dealer first saw Lichtenstein’s paintings, he was shocked. Lichtenstein’s Pop Art seemed cold, blank and commercial. In spite of his ambiguous first impression, Castelli accepted the work of the shy American artist. Within a year he had given Lichtenstein a one-man show and launched the career of a Pop Art legend.
Lichtenstein’s work had changed dramatically in 1961.  He discarded the cowboy and Indian theme and Cubist style, and suddenly focused on mass-produced images such as cartoon characters, comic strips and advertisements.

Comic book paintings

In the 1960s Roy Lichtenstein began a series of iconic paintings taken directly from American comic books.  These have become some of the most famous images of the Pop Art movement.
A typical example – and one of his best-known war comic paintings – is Whaam!. Lichtenstein appropriated the subject from a 1962 issue of DC Comics’ All-American Men of War. This diptych painting was made on two panels with acrylic and oil.  On the left, a fighter pilot fires a rocket into an enemy aircraft.  On the right, the explosion sends flames and smoke into the sky.  The emotional scene is further dramatized with the large onomatopoeic “Whaam!” and the caption inside a text balloon, “I pressed the fire control…. and ahead of me rockets blazed through the sky…”
Comics about war may have inspired the artist because the stories related to his own life.  World War Two interrupted his studies at the Ohio State University.  In 1943 he was inducted into the Army and later served in Europe.


It was not only the stories that interested Lichtenstein. He also liked the visual language of comic books. Lichtenstein studied their forms and compositions. He used their thick black outlines, strong primary colors. He reproduced their texts.  He also imitated their mechanical printing technique.  Lichtenstein painted small dots close to each other to appear like large areas of color.  It was this easily recognizable style that made the artist famous.
Whaam! was purchased by the Tate Gallery in London in 1967.  The following year the museum held an exhibition of Roy Lichtenstein’s paintings, the Tate’s first exhibition for a living American artist!


Like Whaam!, the 1963 painting Drowning Girl was also taken from a comic book.  It is a good example of another series of Lichtenstein’s comic paintings, which feature women instead of war.
Drowning Girl shows a dark-haired young woman in dangerous water.  The waves around her were adapted from the Japanese artist Hokusai’s famous print, Great Wave off Kanagawa. Lichtenstein stated: “I saw the resemblance and then I pushed it a little further... I don’t think it’s terribly significant, but it’s a way of crystallizing the style by exaggeration.”
Lichtenstein also exaggerated the size of the painting.  The blow-up is probably the most important feature of his comic book paintings. Drowning Girl is many times larger than the original image.
In 1963, Drowning Girl and Whaam! were included in Roy Lichtenstein’s second solo exhibition at the Leo Castelli Gallery.  Drowning Girl was later acquired and is on display today at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Art and Language at The English Corner

Kara Spoonhour, the author of this article, is an art history graduate  and language teacher based in Milan. She works for The English Corner, a language centre which specialises in flexible, made-to-measure courses for students of all ages. The English Corner can prepare students for First Certificate and IELTS exams. It also organises a series of cultural events in Milan, in collaboration with bq, the “Curtatone 19” cultural center and the “Libreria  Equilibri” bookshop. Indeed this article, which is the first in  a series for Speak Up, was the child of one of these events. More “upper intermediate” articles will follow on other artistic and literary subjects that relate to the English-speaking world.  For more on The English Corner, visit www.englishcorner.eu, or look for its page on Facebook.

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art dealer - commerciante d’arte.

blank - vuoto.

shy - timido.

dramatically - radicalmente.

cartoon characters - personaggi dei cartoni animati.

appropriated the subject - prese lo spunto per il soggetto.

a fighter pilot... aircraft - un pilota di caccia spara un razzo contro un aereo nemico.

the caption inside a text balloon - la scritta dentro il fumetto.

rockets blazed through the sky - i razzi incendiavano il cielo.

inducted - reclutato.

thick black outlines - spesse linee nere di contorno.

small dots close to each other - piccoli puntini molto ravvicinati.

purchased - acquistato.

drowning girl - ragazza che annega.

print - stampa.

the blow-up - ingrandimento.

feature - elemento.