Colour Her Gone by Pauline Boty
The past few decades are full of examples of people who looked good, and died young, becoming a legend and an icon. Unfortunately her tragically-early death did not do this to the artist Pauline Boty, but an exhibition and book are likely to bring her the lasting fame she deserved.
Pauline Boty, Pop Artist and Woman are the title of the exhibition at Wolverhampton Art Gallery, and the accompanying book by the exhibition’s co-curator Sue Tate. Both tell Boty’s story but more than that, place her in the 60s world which she seemed to revel in, and also examine her role as a woman artist, and what that meant at the time. Tate’s book includes many images but is scholarly in approach, coming firmly from a gender analysis perspective which is refreshing.
The Wolverhampton exhibition is the first public exhibition to explore Boty’s career as a whole and try to reinstate her at the forefront of British Pop Art, and includes works which have not been seen for more than 40 years.
Her works at the time and since have been overshadowed by those of her male fellow artists and friends, including David Hockney and Peter Blake. It also includes items on loan from her family including an early 1954 sketch book, theatre programmes she designed for the Royal Court and fascinating magazine interviews and newspaper cuttings from the time.
In the exhibition, the display starts with some of Boty’s early works as she tried to find her style, including some influenced by Cezanne, and a Bonnard-like bath scene. She moved into stained glass and Siren from 1960 is a fantastic image of a central woman surrounded by sexual imagery, a gaping mouth and bananas.
Many artists of the time experimented with collages, and Boty was no exception, and the image of a large, well manicured hand appears in several works, alongside other cut-out pictures of building and people, one showing children being plucked from a garden by the hand wielding secateurs.
Events of the early 1960s heavily influenced Boty’s work. She was devastated by the death of Marilyn Monroe, and there are several large oil paintings of the icon. Similarly, Kennedy’s assassination, race riots and the politics of Cuba including the historical figure of Jose Marti are featured, lifting Boty’s work above that of many to show interest in more than just the superficial.
Boty didn’t shy away from sexual politics and nudity, even painting her impressions of her own orgasm. She also painted a version of the famous image of Christine Keeler sat naked across a chair, but used a less confident image of Keeler than was normally shown.
One magazine interview on show in the exhibition includes a now-lost work of a doll in a box, playing on the idea of Cliff Richard’s Living Doll song, and as Boty told the interviewer, it was how she felt when she was seeing a married man, like a doll that was taken out and played with every now and then. She also explained in another interview how she felt men didn’t want women to have views, just to listen to them.
Two works, It’s a Man’s World I and II, the latter featuring in the exhibition, also looked at these views. The first showed admired and revered men, heroes in various aspects of life, and the second showed women – mostly naked and taken from soft porn images, against a beautiful landscape, another idea of a man’s world. Her last work, created for O! Calcutta!, is called unflinchingly BUM, and used vivid reds to shout the word out, and shows a woman’s attractive behind.
Boty discovered she had cancer while pregnant, and refused treatment to have the baby, dying a few months later at just 28. Despite featuring in many newspaper and magazine articles at the time, and being one of four artists profiled in Ken Russell’s Pop Goes the Easel TV documentary on Pop Art, her works remained less well known than many male artists of the time.
Sue Tate explores this further in her book. She uses some impressive statistical analysis to look at the ‘institutional sexism’ of the Royal College of Art at the time Boty was studying, showing how much better qualified women had to be to get in than men, how women were hugely under-represented on the staff, and how they disappeared from RCA exhibitions during the emergence of Pop Art. Language used in catalogues about artists’ ‘virile ideas’ shows the male ethos dominating.
Boty was beautiful, and Tate shows how the media let this dominate their coverage of her, even cutting her artworks out of shots just to show her, leaning forward into the camera and wearing a short skirt, and there is a story of a photographer being sent back to get more sexy pictures.
But at times Boty didn’t help herself; a dancer on the first edition of Ready, Steady, Go, she enjoyed the 1960s social scene and was an attractive part of it. She even posed with her top open to show her bra next to her own painting of Celia Birtwell dressed the same, and another time posed naked, laying face down.
Tate sometimes seems to ascribe to Boty feminist views which she may not always have possessed; this was the woman who was pleased she had lost a few pounds as she was considering going into modelling if art did not work out. It’s an interesting side observation that her new size was a 12, healthy but too big for most women to be considered for modelling today.
Despite this, the exhibition brings back to prominence a Pop Artist who should not have been so forgotten, and Tate’s book complements it perfectly. It combines information from the time and from family and friends since, with an understanding of the gender politics of the 1960s which although appearing more sexually open were no more freeing for a woman artist than earlier decades.
*The exhibition is on until November 16, and the book is published by Wolverhampton Art Gallery, priced at £15 but currently on sale at the exhibition for £12.
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