Important Art by Pauline Boty
This 1961 work is an early example of Boty's forays into "collage painting", consisting of a series of geometric panels and abstract shapes rendered in vibrant blues, oranges and yellows. It was produced in the year that she graduated from the Royal College of Art. Whereas in her studies she had been constrained by the disciplinary limits of her stained glass course, having moved on from the restrictive space of the institution she was now able to pursue her real interests in paint. Gershwin however still demonstrates the way in which Boty was inspired by stained glass techniques, with the artist splitting the space of the canvas into different sections and geometric shapes to make up the whole picture. The geometric panels which make up the piece are reminiscent of historical stained glass or mosaic techniques.
Despite these echoes of historical forms, the shapes rendered are also very contemporary, suggestive of early 1960s advertising and packaging. The bright, primary colors are also similar to the color schemes that began to appear in youth-orientated media in this time, such as magazines, clothes advertising and album covers. Boty, as an artist deeply invested in this youth media combined this sensibility with the skills that she learned in art school. Similar color palettes and collage effects can be seen in the work of her contemporaries, such as Peter Blake.
The title Gershwin is likely a reference to George Gershwin, the extremely popular American jazz composer. This allusion is demonstrative of the way in which Boty took her inspirations from the other media around her. She was not afraid to reference "low media" such as jazz music, even in this early stage of her work and when not working in a figurative style. Early pieces such as this established the background and framed geometric style that Boty then continued to develop through her experimentation with "collaged" figuration.
This painting uses the same vibrant color palette and abstract shapes as Boty's earlier work, but includes a painted likeness of Marilyn Monroe, the Hollywood celebrity. This image appears in a panel, again showing the influence of stained glass work and collage. Monroe herself takes up a slim panel of the canvas, strutting along in a glamorous white dress, heels and fur, with swept up blonde locks. Like many of Boty's image references, this is likely copied directly from a press shot, perhaps at the movie premiere for The Seven Year Itch in 1955. On both sides of the canvas, the image of Monroe is squeezed by abstract green, red and purple shapes, almost threatening to overwhelm her.
Throughout her career, Boty was fascinated with the figure of Marilyn Monroe. She felt an affinity with this most modern of starlets, the ultimate blonde bombshell, who simultaneously represented an era of more open female sexuality and the confinements of this sexualisation. Monroe was both powerful and oppressed due to her beauty, and Boty felt sympathetic to this situation. She, too, struggled throughout her career to express her female sexuality while also navigating the ways in which she was objectified as a beautiful woman by critics, friends and the media. "The fact that Boty was a woman dealing with representations of female sexuality at that time makes her interesting," says curator Chris Stephens, "Many male artists of the period explored popular images of female glamour, like the pin-up, but it was a boy's game. As a woman, she looked at representations of sex and sexuality in a very different way". Boty was all too often typecast as a blonde bimbo in her own acting roles, and often not taken seriously as a painter due to this. As Scene magazine proclaimed in 1962, "Actresses often have tiny brains. Painters often have large beards. Imagine a brainy actress who is also a painter and a blonde and you have PAULINE BOTY". This press clipping reveals the characteristation of Boty as a novelty, and as an aestheticized and fantastic figure.
In The Only Blonde in the World, Monroe is a figure who is at a distance from herself. Rather than a real person, with thoughts, opinions, flaws and desires, Monroe is presented simply as an abstract fantasy, the epitome of femininity and sexual attractiveness. The title, "The Only Blonde in the World", suggests that Monroe is the standard by which all other (blonde) women are judged. Boty's ironic title mocks its own ludicrousness, exposing the way in which so many beautiful women are positioned as similar fantasies by the profoundly misogynist and heteronormative society of the early 1960s.
My Colouring Book again reproduces the distinct framing of collage and stained glass, deploying imagery familiar from 1960s media alongside bright blocks of color and snatches of text. The painting is a line by line visualisation of the popular song 'My Colouring Book', as sung by Barbara Streisand in 1963 and Dusty Springfield in 1964. The canvas is split into six sections, partially mimicking a girl's comic magazine. Each segment represents a different idea expressed in the lyrics of the song. The line "These are the eyes that watched him as he walked away, color them grey", is illustrated by a pair of round grey and then-fashionable sunglasses shielding a ghostly face, subtly suggesting the denizens of 'Swinging London'. A blue love heart, rendered in an almost childlike form is captioned "This is the heart that thought He would always be true, Color it blue". "These are the arms that held him, and touched him, then lost him, somehow, color them empty, now" is accompanied by a picture of an anonymous blonde grasping an empty, white silhouette. In the bottom right, a chunky green beaded necklace; "These are the beads I wore, until she came between, color them green". Then a detailed image of a stylish but uninhabited bedroom, as if in an advert, "This is the room I sleep in, walk in and weep in, hiding, that nobody sees, color it lonely, please". Then finally, a stereotypical movie "Bad boy", smoking in a leather jacket; "This is the boy, the one I depended upon, Colour him gone."
This careful visualisation of the song's lyrics reflected the fact that Boty was actually engaged with, and referenced, the media that women were confronted with at the time. She "did not adopt the cool detachment expected of Pop artists and... gave form to the emotional experience of the female fan." This idea is exemplified by the manner in which the painting essentially follows the instructions of the song, Boty following along with the disembodied female narrator, who begins by asking the listener if they have "crayons ready? Very well, begin to color me..." In doing so, Boty is sympathetic with the plight of the heartbroken woman and the difficulties of the female experience. But at the same time, she is demonstrating the way in which women's media of the time reduces these experiences to a melancholic array of stock images and colors, which they are then invited to childishly depict in crayon. My Colouring Book identifies with the daily experience of teenage girls in the 1960s, and the loss and heartbreak they may feel when mistreated by men, but simultaneously highlights the way in which this experience was infantilised and made melodramatic in "girls' magazines, romance movies, and popular songs.