“I don’t care! I’d rather sink than call Brad for help!”
That’s the line from a speech bubble in Drowning Girl, one of Roy Lichtenstein’s most famous paintings, showing a crying girl struggling in a stormy sea as waves crash around her. It was painted in 1963, during the period when the American artist was preoccupied with two main themes, romance and war, depicted in vivid studies of comic book images. These melodramatic pop paintings would make Lichtenstein famous, and they’re still his most well known works today. But a new retrospective at Tate Modern, running until 27th May 2013, reveals there’s far more to Lichtenstein than just cartoons and caricatures.
Born in 1923 in New York city, Lichtenstein worked right up until his sudden death in 1997. The exhibition spans the five decades of his career, starting with the earliest explorations of his signature style. Look Mickey, considered a breakthrough piece, is a painting of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck fishing that Lichtenstein based on a picture he found in his sons’ comic book. This imperfect rendition, comprised of patches of primary coloured spots, set the artist on a path that led to his most famous pop paintings, of which there are also plenty on show at the Tate.
It’s thrilling to see these much-parodied paintings in the flesh, to experience the full visual impact of the rocket collision in the huge Whaam! (1963) and see that all those dots (they were created using something called a Benday screen) aren’t quite so uniform up close.
But what’s even more fascinating are the many rooms of lesser known, but equally visceral, works. Did you know Lichtenstein painted a great many landscapes and seascapes in his time? Or that he took the works of celebrated artists like Monet and Picasso and recast them in his own style? Or that in the 1990’s he painted a series of idealised cartoon-like nudes? Neither did I. It’s not all paintings either, there are ceramics too and a series of art deco brass sculptures.
Unless you’re already a Lichtenstein know-it-all, this exhibition is full of surprises and easily dispels the myth that he was a one trick pony. Plus, at the moment queues aren’t insane like they often are for Tate blockbuster exhibits – you’d do well to head down soon before word gets out.
The Roy Lichtenstein Retrospective at Tate Modern is open until 27th May 2013. For ticket details visit the Tate Modern website.