Pauline Boty’s colouring book
It’s been a long wait, but at last there is a good exhibition devoted to the work of Pauline Boty, the pioneering Pop Art painter who made a fleeting impression in company with her friends Peter Blake, Derek Boshier and others in the early Sixties but died of cancer in 1966, aged 28, before she had a chance to mature as an artist or to establish herself in the mind of the public.
Boty’s physical beauty (she was a perfect Sixties blonde in the genre of Julie Christie and the model Susan Murray) led her to part-time work as an actress and a model. It certainly distorted perceptions of her work and made it harder for her art to be accepted on its own terms, although those terms included a constant willingness to investigate the meaning of her own attractiveness — and that of other women, including Marilyn Monroe and Monica Vitti — in a world dominated by the male gaze.
Here, if you haven’t seen it before, is a short clip that features her from Ken Russell’s Pop Goes the Easel, a profile of the group of artists among whom she lived and worked, made in 1962 for Monitor, the BBC’s weekly arts programme. And here is Michael Bracewell (whose informative book about the art-school origins of Roxy Music, Re-make/Re-model, you might have read) talking about Boty’s painting “The Only Blonde in the World” in the Tate Shorts series. Sabine Durrant, writing for the Independent on Sunday‘s Review section 20 years ago, brought a lot of information to light, and her piece is still probably the best biographical overview.
What on earth, you might ask, does this have to do with music? Well, the painting in the photograph above, currently hanging as part of the exhibition at the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, is called “My Colouring Book”, and when Boty painted it in 1963 she was inspired by the hit song of that name, a lovelorn pop ballad which became a hit in 1962 in three different versions, by Barbra Streisand, Sandy Stewart and Kitty Kallen. (Nine years ago Agnetha Faltskog made it the title track of a solo album about which I wrote in enthusiastic terms here last May.)
Boty takes the song’s lyric and adapts a format popular among the girls’ pop comics of the era (Romeo, etc), creating a series of cartoon frames illustrating a selection of its lines. She doesn’t do what Roy Lichtenstein did, copying the comic-book approach by making the illustration a straightforward visual rendering of the text: she does something less literal, more allusive. The denouement comes with the painting of the male figure in the frame at the bottom right-hand corner of the painting, illustrating the song’s concluding lines: “This is the man whose love I depended upon / Colour him gone” in the official version, but she changes it to “This is the boy, the one I depended upon / Colour him gone.” I like her version better.
In one of the captions accompanying the exhibition, the curator remarks: “She did not adopt the cool detachment expected of Pop artists and, speaking of a ‘nostalgia for now’, gave form to the emotional experience of the female fan.” An important job, I’d say, and this fine painting is a good example of her success. I hadn’t seen it before, probably because it comes from the collection of contemporary art at the Museum Sztuki in Lodz, Poland. Like all her work, it has an open-hearted quality undamaged by the years.
* The exhibition Pauline Boty: Pop Artist and Woman, curated by Sue Tate and first seen at the Wolverhampton Art Gallery earlier this year, is at the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, West Sussex (www.pallant.org.uk) until February 9. There’s a good catalogue.