Author: Imogen Aldridge

What Is Pop Art? The History of Pop Art

Pop Art first rose to prominence in the mid-1950s in the UK, and a few years later in the US. At that time, contemporary artists started to feel an increasing detachment between the subject matter represented in museum artwork, the teachings in art school and the reality of the world around them.

Inspired by day-to-day life in Western society, with emphasis on familiar advertising, product packaging, comic strips and well-known actors and musicians of the time, Pop Art broadened the artistic landscape and made art accessible to the masses. 

A Break with Tradition

While pop art is derived from post-war consumerism and everything that came with it, many of the most prominent visionaries of the movement played an active role in shaping mass culture of the time. Andy Warhol began his artistic career in magazine illustration and advertising, later going on to design album covers and promo pieces for music label RCA Records. Famous painter and printmaker Edward Ruscha worked as a layout artist for an LA-based advertising agency upon graduating from art school. 

Where previous art movements had a fascination with history and mythology, this new movement could draw inspiration from anything. As a result, Pop Art came to be viewed as a rebellion against ‘traditional’ art.

How is Pop Art defined?

Mention ‘Pop Art’ to a group of people, and the images that spring to mind tend to be Roy Lichtenstein’s comic strip-style work, and Andy Warhol’s iconic Campbell’s Soup Can pieces. However, if you were to ask people to define Pop Art, it’s unlikely you’d get the same answer twice. While there is evidence that the phrase was used as early as 1953, in 1957, Richard Hamilton, one of the key artists of the movement, defined the term in a letter to architects Alison and Peter Smithson. He wrote:

“Pop Art is:

Popular (designed for a mass audience), transient (short-term solution), expendable (easily-forgotten), low cost, mass produced, young (aimed at youth), witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous, big business.”

Born out of a lack of representation of regular, contemporary life in the art world, Pop Art sought to blur the lines between ‘high’ art and ‘low’ culture once and for all, and drew much of its inspiration from modern (1950s and 60s) America. While early British Pop Art was inspired by looking at American pop culture from far across the Atlantic, US artists were living within that culture and depicting the visual world around them.

Critics generally argue that Pop Art has an ambivalent quality. In other words, it’s difficult to figure out the artist’s emotions or views on the world they portray. Whether this is accepting of the pop climate in its then form or withdrawn from it is still the subject of debate.

Pop Art’s Best-known Artwork - Explore our Pop Art collection

While the names of the pieces may be unfamiliar, the following works are among the most iconic to have come from the Pop Art movement, and have gone on to inspire generations of new artists:

 

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Richard Hamilton – Just What is it That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?


Richard Hamilton is one of the pioneers of Pop Art. This 1956 piece is considered by art critics to be one of the earliest works of Pop Art to arise from the movement, actually giving name to the art form itself (check out the lollipop the central figure is holding).

This collage, made from cuttings of images and advertisements from American pop culture magazines is viewed as the first Pop Art piece to reach ‘iconic’ status, and can be viewed at the Kunsthalle Tübingen in Germany.


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Roy Lichtenstein – Whaam!

This two-canvas painting by US artist Roy Lichtentstein is one of the most renowned comic-style paintings to emerge from the 60s. The work draws inspiration from a panel that was drawn by Irv Novick and featured in DC Comics’ All-American Men of War, issue 89 from February 1962.

Whaam! is full of contradictions and talking points that have made this work the subject of debate for decades. The depiction of war in a cartoon-like, detached format, the depiction of commercial art as ‘high’ art and even the fact that Lichtenstein went to incredible lengths to hand-paint a mass produced image.

While this painting can be viewed at the Tate Modern in London, we have a small but beautiful collection of other limited edition Roy Lichtenstein lithographs and screen prints available.

 

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Andy Warhol – Campbell’s Soup Cans

Who doesn’t know this collection? One of the most famous Pop Art collections to have been created in the 20th century, Andy Warhol’s original 1962 Campbell’s Soup Cans canvas paintings depicted all 32 varieties of flavour. 

When the canvases were first exhibited in the same year they were created, they were displayed together on shelves like at a supermarket. Now, this piece is one of the well-known, well-loved pieces of art and a defining work to emerge from the Pop Art movement. Think it’d look good in your home? Find your dream colour scheme in our Andy Warhol collection.

 

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Sir Eduardo Paolozzi – I was a Rich Man’s Plaything

Another seminal collage matched with an equally intriguing title, this collage by Scottish artist Sir Eduardo Paolozzi is actually made from magazine clippings and adverts, partly given by US servicemen and partly purchased from shops in London.

One of ten collages from Paolozzi’s BUNK! Series, the collage’s title is taken from the top line of the ‘Intimate Confessions’ cutting, while the series takes its name from a quote from Henry Ford, that “History is more or less bunk. It's tradition. We don't want tradition. We want to live in the present…”. With that in mind, it’s not difficult to see why this collage became one of the most notable pieces of Pop Art.

 

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David Hockney – A Bigger Splash

Throughout his incredible career, David Hockney has depicted many swimming pools throughout his work, but 1967’s A Bigger Splash is one of the most famous. Depicting an unseen diver jumping into a swimming pool in front of modernist architecture, Hockney uses bright, bold colours to showcase the light from the California sun.

In an interview with the Tate in 2009, Hockney said, “Most of the painting went on the splash and the splash lasts two seconds and the building is permanent there. That’s what it’s about actually. You have to look at the details.”


Find your favourite new Pop Art at Art Republic

Want to add a modern touch to your home with a Pop Art feature piece? We’ve got incredible pop artworks, prints and photographs from a variety of talented artists from Britain and across the globe. Here are a few that we love:

 

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Agent X Brittany Brooks

Based in Canada, Agent X uses a range of mediums including multimedia collages, such as Brittany Brooks, as well as paintings. Paying tribute to the work of Roy Lichtenstein, this piece combines cartoon illustration with an array of patterns and colours. Add a splash of character to your home. Want advice on how to do it successfully? Read our guide to styling colourful prints in the home.

 

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Sir Peter BlakeParis - The Day the Seine Froze Over

Sir Peter Blake needs no introduction. With artwork featured in the Tate Gallery and other notable museums, galleries and institutions, he is best known for co-creating the legendary artwork for The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper album. And it’s this subtle humour and talent for collage that features in The Day the Seine Froze Over. This piece is from his extensive Paris Suite collection in tribute to the French capital, and we love the depiction of reindeers and sledges.

 

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Not a fan of Monopoly? Then you’ll love this piece by Dollarsandart. Designed as a nod to a time when we were all at home under lockdown during the pandemic, Monotony pays tribute to time spent repeatedly playing board games with friends and family. This is the 2nd piece in his Games2020 collection.

In the words of the artist himself, “I'm 50:50 on this game although given the circumstance it has to be in on every level! Still fond of getting Mayfair as early as possible plus chugging my way around the board with an iron it's enjoyable provided that it doesn't go on for more than two hours.....”

Like what you see? Discover our full collection of amazing Pop Art. We have bold, beautiful art from talented, independent artists as well as limited edition prints by the legendary Keith Haring, and plenty more. 

Want more? Discover Pop Art ideas for the home in our blog, and if you've got a Pop Art lover in your life, explore the perfect gifts for them.

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