Executed in 1974, this work will be included in the catalogue raisonné being prepared by the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation.
Painted in 1974, Still Life with Sculpture is a wry Pop assault on Roy Lichtenstein's venerated artistic predecessors. The painter has wittily mimicked the visual language of the world of print and mass media in order to recreate the impression of a picture that is unmistakably Matissean. Yet the world of sensuality, of painterly indulgence, of rich and opulent aesthetics has been deflated by the deliberately and even perversely flat, faux-print forms of Lichtenstein's Pop idiom. The sacrosanct gesture of a celebrated painter has been brought tumbling to Earth in this more contemporary and ironic reprisal of Modernism.
There is a gentle surrealism and irony to the fact that this intimate domestic corner is from the world of the wrong artist. While the content is clearly that of an almost idealised or generic Matisse still life, the style is unmistakably that of Lichtenstein. Just as Marshall McLuhan stated that, "The medium is the message," so the clinical precision of Lichtenstein's idiosyncratic style manages to trump Matisse's unmistakable content (M. McLuhan, Understanding Media, New York, 1964, chapter 1). Still Life with Sculpture is not based on any single painting by Matisse. As in his other works based on earlier artists and movements, Lichtenstein has instead distilled the essence of Matisse, has taken some of the trademark elements-- sculpture, vase, plants, ornamentation-- and presented them through his own visual idiom and technique. He has presented us with something that lays claim to instant recognition, that is "classic," and that is therefore a part of popular culture, however much a Matisse may also lay claim to the status of high art.
With his use of dark colors and rich ornamentation, Lichtenstein has successfully managed to instil in the viewer some of the sensuality of Matisse's paintings. The various patterned surfaces and hatching add a visual texture that heightens this effect, appearing to show a genuine fondness for the decorative world of the older artist. Matisse, especially during his time in the South of France, surrounded himself with beauty and with beautiful objects, with greenery, textiles and art, and these came to fill his works. Lichtenstein successfully evokes that atmosphere, depicting what appears to be an intimate corner of Matisse's world. Lichtenstein pays his respect to this by even using green in order to depict the plant, a color that he usually shunned ("I don't use it too much because it is an intermediate color" (R. Lichtenstein quoted in John Coplans, "Talking with Roy Lichtenstein," S.H. Madoff, ed., Pop Art: A Critical History, Berkeley & London, 1997, p.199). However, this corner is crucially and incontrovertibly a corner of the older artist's world, not of Lichtenstein's. This is an image that is at several removes from the present painting, who remains inscrutable behind the sheen and gloss of his precisely-rendered painting.
In the foreground of this picture lies a sculpture of a reclining woman, itself a direct quotation from Matisse's work. It is an invitation into the old French master's world of pleasure, sensuality and art for art's sake. The presence of the sculpture by Matisse himself, which featured in so many of his own works, introduces the concept of art within art, of a work, itself a former reproduction of some facet of the artist's reality, acquiring an ambiguous dual value as it comes to mimic that upon which it was originally based. In short, the sculpture comes to resemble a nude, albeit a nude dwarfed by the plant and vase behind it. This effect is made all the more explicit in Lichtenstein's painting by the large scale of the canvas, with the small sculpture acquiring dimensions normally associated with the human figure, not with a tiny corner of an artist's home. Matisse himself had played with concepts of representation, with the strange and shifting relationships between perceived and pictorial realities. Those games of mimesis gain an entire new dimension in Still Life with Sculpture through Lichtenstein's appropriation of Matisse's signature themes. The illusion of the sculpture-as-woman in Matisse's original paintings is subjected to an extra twist because Lichtenstein's painting itself is an illusion, pretending to represent something that it patently is not, deliberately undermining its own claim to show a Matisse.
High art had long provided Lichtenstein with subject matter, as was seen in his diagram version of Cézanne's portrait of his wife of 1962. Over the following years, the haystacks and cathedrals of Monet, the still life paintings of the Cubists and the Purists, Surrealism, Expressionism-- all these figures and movements would fall prey to Lichtenstein's gaze. The terms in which he described his subversive reprisals of Monet's painting serve equally well as an explanation of the visual mechanisms that make Still Life with Sculpture so potent: "It's an industrial way of making Impressionism-- or something like it-- by a machinelike technique. But it probably takes me ten times as long to do one of the Cathedral or Haystack paintings as it took Monet to do his" (R. Lichtenstein quoted in L. Alloway, Lichtenstein, New York, 1999, p. 53). In a sense, then, Lichtenstein was deliberately tainting the canon works by older artists, tarnishing them with techniques associated with manufacture and the masses. All these works drag what was revered as so-called "high art" into the realms of vulgarity, of the tabloid, the billboard and the magazine. When asked how to define Pop Art, Lichtenstein replied:
"I don't know-- the use of commercial art as subject matter in painting, I suppose. It was hard to get a painting that was despicable enough so that no one would hang it-- everybody was hanging everything. It was almost acceptable to hang a dripping paint rag, everybody was accustomed to this. The one thing everyone hated was commercial art; apparently they didn't hate that enough either" (R. Lichtenstein in 1963, quoted in G.R. Swenson, "Roy Lichtenstein: An Interview," Roy Lichtenstein, exh.cat., London, 1968, p. 7).
Lichtenstein had in fact begun by using the components of this formula in complete reverse order. Some of his earliest Pop pictures showed popular cartoon characters, for instance those from Disney, who had been rendered in gestural brushstrokes that deliberately aped the Action Painters, still the giants of the art scene onto which Lichtenstein was emerging. Lichtenstein was ironising the celebrated machismo of the Abstract Expressionists by using it not only to create something that was clearly figurative, but that was also clearly popular and even childish. In Still Life with Sculpture, this appears to have been reversed-- the work of Matisse has been reduced to a generic and childlike simplicity that itself is intrinsically absurd. In this, Lichtenstein has again succeeded in lampooning what he perceived as pretensions relating to the artistic gesture itself.
It is important to remember, though, that Lichtenstein's works are more homage than parody. Lichtenstein is dragging Matisse into the contemporary world, making him current, giving him a new visual relevance. Still Life with Sculpture marks the reincarnation of Matisse in a guise more suited to the late Twentieth Century, to the world of Pop and advertising. Just as the picture bursts with color and a strange, admittedly displaced and disrupted, sensuality, so too it brims with optimism, with an enthusiastic look around at the vibrancy of the modern world.
Still Life with Sculpture
Oil and magna on canvas
Signed and dated 'rf Lichtenstein '74' (on the reverse)
New York, Mitchell-Innes & Nash, Still Life with Sculpture: Lichtenstein and Matisse, November-December 2003.
POST-WAR & CONTEMPORARY ART
42 x 52 in. (106.7 x 132.1 cm.)
V. Prat, "Roy Lichtenstein: Un Héros de Bande Dessinée," Le Figaro Magazine, 21 January 2006, no. 19119, pp. 80-81 (illustrated in color).
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York
Mayor Gallery, London
Private collection, London
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York
Private collection, New York
Anon. sale; Sotheby's, New York, 17 November 1999, lot 47