Whaam! by Roy Lichtenstein, 1963
Whaam! is an eerie modern version of the battle paintings that once decorated European palaces. It is on a grand scale, split across two panels that together measure more than four metres in width.
An American fighter unleashes a spurt of fire that blows up an enemy plane, giving the pilot no chance of escape. It is a picture of violence, but the violence is experienced third hand.
The subject matter comes straight out of the cold war, and its title WHAAM conjures up as much sound as the picture. So what’s going on, and why does it have pride of place in Tate Modern?
The Bigger Picture
Whaam! is a 1963 diptych painting by the American artist Roy Lichtenstein. It is one of the best-known works of pop art, and among Lichtenstein's most important paintings. Whaam! was first exhibited at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York City in 1963, and purchased by the Tate Gallery, London, in 1966. It has been on permanent display at Tate Modern since 2006.
Lichtenstein conceived the image from several comic-book panels. He transformed his primary source, a panel from a 1962 war comic book, by presenting it as a diptych while altering the relationship of the graphical and narrative elements. Whaam! is regarded for the temporal, spatial and psychological integration of its two panels.
The painting's title is integral to the action and impact of the picture, and displayed in large onomatopoeia (the formation of a word from a sound associated with what is named) in the right pane Whaam! depicts a fighter aircraft in the left panel firing a rocket into an enemy plane in the right panel, which disintegrates in a dramatic red-and-yellow explosion. The cartoon style is emphasized by the lettering "WHAAM!" in the right panel, and a yellow-boxed caption with black lettering at the top of the left panel.
Whaam! Is one of Lichtenstein's series of war images, typically combining vibrant colours with an expressive narrative? Whaam! is colossal, measuring 1.7m × 4.0m.
Lichtenstein employs his usual comic-book style: stereotyped imagery in bright primary colours with black outlines, coupled with imitations of mechanical printer's Ben-Day dots. The use of these dots, which were invented by Benjamin Day to simulate colour variations and shading, are considered Lichtenstein's "signature method.
About Roy Lichtenstein
Roy Lichtenstein was born in 1923, in New York, the son of Milton Lichtenstein, a successful property developer, and Beatrice Werner Lichtenstein.
As a boy growing up on Manhattan's Upper West Side, Lichtenstein had a passion for both science and comic books. In his teens, he became interested in art.
He took watercolour classes at Parsons School of Design in 1937, and he classes at the Art Students League in 1940, studying with American realist painter Reginald Marsh.Following his graduation from the Franklin School for Boys in Manhattan in 1940, Lichtenstein attended The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio.
His college studies were interrupted in 1943 when he was drafted and sent to Europe for World War II. After his wartime service, Lichtenstein returned to Ohio State in 1946 to finish his undergraduate degree and master's degree—both in fine arts.
He briefly taught at Ohio State before moving to Cleveland and working as a window-display designer for a department store, an industrial designer and a commercial art instructor.
In the late 1940s, Lichtenstein exhibited his art in galleries nationwide, including in Cleveland and New York.
In the 1950s, he often took his artistic subjects from mythology and American history and folklore, and he painted those subjects in styles that paid homage to earlier art, from the 18th century through modernism.
Lichtenstein began experimenting with different subjects and methods in the early 1960s while he was teaching at Rutgers University. His newer work was both a commentary on American popular culture and a reaction to the recent success of Abstract Expressionist painting by artists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Instead of painting abstract, often subject-less canvases as Pollock and others had had done, Lichtenstein took his imagery directly from comic books and advertising.
Rather than emphasize his painting process and his own inner, emotional life in his art, he mimicked his borrowed sources right down to an impersonal-looking stencil process that imitated the mechanical printing used for commercial art. Lichtenstein's best-known work from this period is "Whaam!," which he painted in 1963, using a comic book panel from a 1962 issue of DC Comics' All-American Men of War as his inspiration.
Other works of the 1960s featured cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and advertisements for food and household products. He created a large-scale mural of a laughing young woman (adapted from an image in a comic book) for the New York State Pavilion of the 1964 World's Fair in New York City.
Lichtenstein became known for his deadpan humour and his slyly subversive way of building a signature body of work from mass-reproduced images.
By the mid-1960s, he was nationally known and recognized as a leader in the Pop Art movement that also included Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist and Claes Oldenburg. His art became increasingly popular with both collectors and influential art dealers like Leo Castelli, who showed Lichtenstein's work at his gallery for 30 years.
Like much Pop Art, it provoked debate over ideas of originality, consumerism and the fine line between fine art and entertainment.
In the late 1960s, Lichtenstein had stopped using comic book sources. In the 1970s, his focus turned to creating paintings that referred to the art of early 20th century masters like Picasso, Matisse, Léger and Dalí. In the 1980s and '90s, he also painted representations of modern house interiors, brushstrokes and mirror reflections, all in his trademark, cartoon-like style. He also began working in sculpture.
In the 1980s, Lichtenstein received several major large-scale commissions, including a 25-foot-high sculpture titled "Brushstrokes in Flight" for the Port Columbus International Airport in Columbus, Ohio and a five-story-tall mural for the lobby of the Equitable Tower in New York. Lichtenstein was committed to his art until the end of his life, often spending at least 10 hours a day in his studio. His work was acquired by major museum collections around the world, and he received numerous honorary degrees and awards, including the National Medal of Arts in 1995.
He died in 1997
Like most Pop Art, Lichtenstein’s paintings resist easy political reading.
Is he celebrating the wham-bam action of the war, the thrill of the chase, the glory of the kill? Or is he commenting on that celebration as dehumanizing to both the enemy and self?
These questions (even if the artist never meant to raise them) hang over us half a century later.
Whaam! flies straight out of the pages of popular war-based comic books moulding the minds of young men who were too young yet to fight in either the Cold War or the one starting to heat up—Vietnam. It is attacking the romantic image of war promoted by comics and Hollywood films in the Cold War era. Whaam! was completed just before the US became heavily involved in the war in Vietnam. It could be read as a warning of the implications of such a war.
Lichtenstein made realistic paintings of an unreal world. His art is gloriously paradoxical – and the cleverest paradox is that, as in Whaam! the imaginary world turns out to have echoes in the actual one.
In Whaam! this free art is mockingly parodied. Lichtenstein carefully accurately recreates an image – and that image shows a man finding freedom in machines. As he fires, the pilot obtains a sense of release. Like Jack the Dripper from Dr Strangelove, he expresses himself – but does it by pressing a button.
The approach taken by Lichtenstein has been described as pop art. Pop art is an art movement that emerged in the 1950s and flourished in the 1960s in America and Britain, drawing inspiration from sources in popular and commercial culture. Key pop artists include Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Richard Hamilton, Peter Blake and David Hockney.
It began as a revolt against the dominant approaches to art and culture and traditional views on what art should be. Young artists felt that what they were taught at art school and what they saw in museums did not have anything to do with their lives or the things they saw around them every day. Instead, they turned to sources such as Hollywood movies, advertising, product packaging, pop music and comic books for their imagery.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a “cultural revolution” was underway, led by activists, thinkers, and artists who sought to rethink and even overturn what was, in their eyes, stifling social order ruled by conformity. The Vietnam War incited mass protests, the Civil Rights Movement sought equality for African Americans, and the women’s liberation movement gained momentum.
It was in this climate of turbulence, experimentation, and consumerism that a new generation of artists emerged in Britain and America in the mid- to late-1950s.
Pop artists began to look for inspiration in the world around them, representing—and, at times, making art directly from—everyday items, consumer goods, and mass media.
They did this in a straightforward manner, using bold swaths of primary colours, often straight from the can or tube of paint. They adopted commercial methods like silk-screening, or produced multiples of works, downplaying the artist’s hand and subverting the idea of originality—in marked contrast to the highly expressive, large-scale abstract works of the Abstract Expressionists, whose work had dominated post-war American art.
Pop artists favoured realism, everyday (and even mundane) imagery, and heavy doses of irony and wit.Pop artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein were very aware of the past. They sought to connect fine art traditions with pop culture elements from television, advertisements, films, and cartoons.
At the same time, their work challenged traditional boundaries between media, combining painted gestures with photography and printmaking; combining handmade and readymade or mass-produced elements,
By creating paintings or sculptures of mass culture objects and media stars, the Pop art movement aimed to blur the boundaries between "high" art and "low" culture. The concept that there is no hierarchy of culture and that art may borrow from any source has been one of the most influential characteristics of Pop art.
Pop artists seemingly embraced the post-WWII manufacturing and media boom.
Some critics have cited the Pop art choice of imagery as an enthusiastic endorsement of the capitalist market and the goods it circulated.
Others have noted an element of cultural critique in the Pop artists' elevation of the everyday to high art: tying the commodity status of the goods represented by the status of the art object itself, emphasizing art's place as, at base, a product.