This work will be included in the forthcoming Catalogue Raisonné being prepared by the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation.
Roy Lichtenstein's The Prisoner embodies a subject that lay at the centre of the American pop pioneer's work from the beginning: that of art itself. From the early appropriation of cartoon imagery, to the spare renditions of still, calm Chinese landscapes of his latter years, Lichtenstein explored the power and breadth of visual language with his own distinctive and implacable style. Here, Lichtenstein skilfully reinterprets artistic tropes typical of the German Expressionist artists of the early twentieth century to create a striking image that is still unambiguously the work of one of the foremost figures of American Pop Art. Depicting the drawn face of an imprisoned man staring mournfully out from behind a grid of white bars, The Prisoner is a well-observed parody of an Expressionist woodcut. A bold intervention on the sacrosanct realm of "expression" in art, it questions the heartfelt, handmade creativity that has been at the core of much of modern art. Executed with meticulous technical skill and flawless finish, The Prisoner shows a recognisably Expressionist artistic style and subject transformed into the language of mass-produced visual material. Dominated by pure applications of black and white, and enlivened by select touches of primary colour, Lichtenstein has presented the emotive narrative content and angst-ridden mark making typical of this genre in the flat blocks of colour, diagonal stripes and reductive palette more commonly associated with impersonal commercial imagery. The Prisoner's angular features and unbridled expressive energy of the crosshatching may have been tamed, but its Expressionist origins remain clear, and the emotive charge of the image remains strong.
During a trip to Los Angeles in 1978, Lichtenstein became fascinated by collector Robert Rifkind's German Expressionist prints, which featured work by the foremost members of Die Brücke group, such as Emil Nolde, Max Pechstein, Otto Dix and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, as well as work by Der Blaue Reiter, such as Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky. Integral to their philosophy was the idea, articulated here by Kirchner, of "a physical and spiritual freedom opposed to the values of the comfortably established older generation" (E. Kirchner, quoted in Lichtenstein Expressionism, Paris, 2013, p. 16), while their aesthetic was characterized by flatness, and a leveling of the picture plane, heightened through their favored medium of woodcut. The bohemian, free-spirited lifestyle that these artists embodied, intriguingly expressed in this particular style offered Lichtenstein the perfect paradox to explore. As Hans Ulrich Obrist has said of this visit; "his interest surely had something to do with the sense of flatness in the German Expressionist prints he saw there. In all of Lichtenstein's work there is a flatness. The brushstrokes have simply disappeared. Even when he made his Brushstroke Series, he painted a "metabrushstroke", but it is still flat. When you think about Expressionism through this sensibility, wellit is a kind of oxymoron, two things that don't belong together." (H. Ulrich Obrist, quoted in Lichtenstein Expressionism, Paris, 2013, p. 28).
Shortly after, Lichtenstein began to produce works that borrowed certain stylistic elements from these artists, such as a pattern of wood grain, the jagged division of the picture plane, the thick black outlines of an image, and the flat application of strong, non-natural color. Lichtenstein even went on to make a series of woodcuts; Expressionist Woodcut Series, published the same year that The Prisoner was painted.
Although famous for bringing popular culture into the sanctified realm of "high art" by combining parochial subject matter with formal discipline, Lichtenstein was always keen to emphasise that he had always been critically engaged with his art historical predecessors. In 1962 he produced two works after cheap reproductions of Cézanne paintings, found in art history manuals, and in 1963 Lichtenstein translated Picasso's Women of Algiers, 1955 (itself based on an 1834 painting by Eugene Delacroix) into Femme d'Alger, openly acknowledging how he saw him as the greatest artist of the twentieth century. Rethinking the work of those he respected most was a way of coping with that admiration, learning from them, and ultimately, making them his own. As he said: "[Since 1963] instead of using subject matter that was considered vernacular, or everyday, I used subject matter that was celebrated as art. What I wanted to express is not that Picasso was known and therefore commonplace. Nobody thought of Picasso as common. What I am painting is a kind of Picasso done the way a cartoonist does it, or the way it might be described to you, so it loses the subtleties of Picasso, but it takes on other characteristics; the Picasso is converted to my pseudo-cartoon style and takes on a character of its own" (R. Lichtenstein, quoted in G. Mercurio, Lichtenstein: Meditations on Modern Art, exh. cat., Triennale di Milano, Milan, 2010, p.137).
In 1974 Lichtenstein began to concentrate entirely on the concept of artistic style, and over the next decade, all his series of works played with the most recognisable traits of art movements that had dominated the twentieth century--employing his cartoon style to caricature Piet Mondrian's abstractions, Art Deco design, Willem de Kooning's gestural abstract paintings, and later, Futurism, Cubism and Surrealism. Using his experience of working with visual stereotypes in popular culture, he brought his formal understanding, technical acumen and wry sense of humour to analysing the methods, theories, subject and techniques that made some of his predecessors such memorable artists. By turning his acutely analytical eye from stereotypes in popular, mass-media imagery onto this venerated territory, Lichtenstein became astute at anticipating the precise moment when an expressive impulse becomes a stylistic trait. His intent was far from iconoclastic, however. Despite their gently humorous undertone, Lichtenstein was adamant that these works stemmed from a deep respect for his predecessors, and how they manipulated or took possession of certain formal qualities in order to convey particular messages.
Above all, Lichtenstein was motivated by a desire to probe the idea of visual symbols, and explore how meaning can be conveyed through the transformative act of applying paint onto a surface. Speaking in the 1960s, Lichtenstein had insisted: "I'm very much concerned with getting my own work to be a work of art, so that it has a sort of rebuilding aspect to it also. So, it's completely rearranged; it has become commercialized because the style that I switch it into is one of commercializationBut the result that I work toward is one of creating a new work of art which has other qualities." (R. Lichtenstein, quoted in J. Coplans (ed). Roy Lichtenstein, New York, 1972, p. 68.) Two decades later, having explored popular imagery, he remained convinced that one of the most powerful ways in which visual conventions can operate was in art itself. In creating respectful pastiches such as The Prisoner, Lichtenstein was breaking down revered stylistic and intellectual idioms into their composite parts, rebuilding them into a new work of art that is unequivocally his own.
Oil and Magna on canvas
Signed and dated '(c) rf Lichtenstein '80' (on the reverse)
Roy Lichtenstein , 20th Century, Paintings, United States of America, Post War
London, Mayor Gallery, Roy Lichtenstein: Recent Paintings, October-November 1980.
Palm Springs Art Museum, 2011-2013 (on loan).
POST-WAR & CONTEMPORARY ART
60 x 40 in. (152.4 x 101.6 cm.)
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York
Private collection, St. Louis
Larry Gagosian Gallery, Los Angeles
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1981
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