Sir Eduardo Paolozzi
I Was a Rich Man's Plaything
I Was a Rich Man’s Plaything looks like a scruffy page from a teenage boy’s scrapbook. This effect is due to both the low-tech way it’s been assembled and the choice of images. Dominating the work is the figure of the sexy Hollywood starlet who smiles provocatively out of the Intimate Confessions magazine cover.
The image of the woman is not a photograph, but a highly stylised drawn image. She is placed below the magazine’s title and to the left of the cover with her back aligned to the left hand edge of the page. She is sitting on a blue tassled cushion and not quite in profile, but turned slightly towards the viewer. Her knees are drawn up to her chest, her hands are crossed over her ankles and her head is tipped back so that she glances provocatively at us over her shoulder. She is wearing a revealing scarlet dress that matches her lipstick, nail varnish and the word ‘confessions’ in the magazine’s title - the limited colour range in the image also indicating that it is a fairly cheaply printed publication. The woman’s dress is open and reveals black stockings to match her dark curly hair and high-heeled shoes.
Opposite the starlet on the right hand side of the cover is a list of five sensational headings beginning with ‘I was a rich man’s plaything’, followed by ‘Ex-mistress’, ‘I confess’, ‘If this be Sin’, Woman of the Streets’ and ‘Daughter of Sin’. Immediately below the title ‘Intimate Confessions’, were probably the words ‘true stories’. However only the word ‘true’ remains visible because Paolozzi has stuck a crudely cut out picture of a man’s hand holding a pistol which points towards the starlet’s head. This would look menacing were it not for the word ‘pop!’ that emerges from the end of the gun barrel in a puff of smoke. The printing quality of the hand is very poor and looks as if it’s been taken from the cover of a cheap comic.
Below the list of scandalous headlines is stuck what could be a fragment of food packaging or perhaps a picture from a magazine. It shows a bright red cherry next to a slice of cherry pie with the word ‘cherry’ printed underneath. There is probably an intended playfulness to the position of this element next to the kiss-and-tell starlet, since ‘cherry’ is American slang for virginity and judging by the magazine’s claims, she clearly isn’t ‘sweet as cherry pie’. Below the cherry pie picture is another piece of commercial packaging that features a red disc, rimmed in gold with the words ‘Real Gold’ in the centre. Once again, Paolozzi seems to be using the brand name to comment on the commercial value of salacious gossip rather than the character of the woman.
Below the magazine cover and set into the left hand corner of the work is a postcard. It shows an American fighter bomber flying amongst the clouds in a lurid sunset-orange sky with the legend ‘Keep ‘Em Flying’ emblazoned around the plane. The card itself has a textured surface resembling a linen weave and it was probably given to Paolozzi by US servicemen stationed in Paris while he was studying art there in the late 40s. Opposite the card in the right hand corner is another piece of advertising cut out from a magazine, this time a bottle of coca cola. Alongside it is the brand’s iconic logo within a red disc, forming part of the slogan ‘Serve Coca-Cola at home’. Since the plane and the drink are instantly recognisable as American, they colour the way in which we read the other images in the work. So we assume the woman is a Hollywood starlet and the hand holding the pistol belongs to a gangster or a private eye.
As a rather rough-looking assembly of pre-produced images gleaned from distinctly low-brow sources, it is possible that a viewer might overlook the artistic merit of this work. But this would be to underestimate the careful judgement that went into selecting and arranging images that best served Paolozzi’s intentions. He saw a parallel between his art and that of traditional artists of the past saying that: "… a classical artist might have done 500 drawings, one's looking at 500 images involved with a kind of global situation and one's choosing an image which acts as a metaphor for one's particular feeling. But unless one emphasizes and arranges the images into patterns of irony the point will be lost."
The various collaged elements in I Was A Rich Man’s Plaything are stuck onto pulp board which is a very cheap material made from pulped paper. Its texture is rough, like coarse blotting paper and although it would originally have been grey, it is now a yellow brown having faded through exposure to the light. Most of the different paper and card elements have tears, repairs, scuffed edges and creases from earlier folds. The pulp board itself has been torn from a book so its left hand edge is rough with four small tears where it was pulled away from staples. The Intimate Confessions magazine also has a rough left hand edge while the coca-cola bottle and the cloud at the end of the gun have both been torn almost in half and stuck back together. The different pieces were all stuck down with cow gum which would originally have been transparent. However, age has discoloured it so that the work is covered with dark stains and smudges. This is particularly noticeable around the edges of the different pieces of paper where the excess glue must have leaked out as Paolozzi pressed them into place. It is not just the glue that has left its mark on the work, there are splashes of paint across the whole surface. The cloud of smoke from the gun has a blue ink stain on it, while the bright red coca-cola logo has been dulled by a smudge of blue paint. Even though not all of these stains would have been apparent when this work was first made, it would always have looked hastily put together, transient and homemade and this impression was deliberate.
Bunk, the title of Paolozzi’s lecture and the series to which this work belongs, is short for ‘bunkum’ and American slang for rubbish or nonsense. It also refers to the American car manufacturer Henry Ford's famous statement that "history is more or less bunk." Paolozzi was exploring the meaning and status of popular, mass produced culture. By using trashy magazines, packaging from processed food, bits of comics and a postcard, he shows how people’s everyday visual landscape is full of inconsequential nonsense. Nevertheless this disposable culture shapes our lives, and its relationship to us is symbiotic as we in turn re-appropriate it to create meanings of our own. Paolozzi’s material may be low grade, worthless, junk, yet this cultural detritus is simultaneously a historical record of life in the 1940s. What was shockingly present to audiences then is now fascinating to viewers in the twenty first century. It is perhaps not surprising that some of Paolozzi’s huge collection of ephemera now belongs to the Victoria and Albert museum.