Thursday, 30 August 2012

Pauline Boty


54321 from 1963 refers both to the TV pop music show and to the Manfred Mann song which was its theme tune, the countdown to the live studio broadcast. The numbers running across the red band at the top of the painting have a gay fairground design, giving them a celebratory feel. Below, a Cathy MacGowan figure (the fashionable presenter of 54321) in dark glasses is painted reclining diagonally across the bottom left, her mouth open in mid-laugh. She looks like she is collapsing with the weight of mirth. Above her, and seemingly partially emanating from the red band at the top, the pulsating heart of a rose hovers like a coalescence of coloured smoke. Boty often uses red flowers as symbols of female sexuality and attraction, and here the woman’s thoughts are made clear by the scrap of a yellow banner on the right hand side of the frame, a free-floating thought bubble whose jumbled and partially obscured pink letters read ‘oh for a fu..’. This represents a frank admission of the undercurrent of desire running close beneath the surface of even the relatively chaste pop of the early 60s. Boty was an enthusiastic participant in the London pop scene herself. She and Derek Boshier successfully passed the auditions for 54321 and appeared as dancers on one of the shows. Boty is definitely the star of the party with which Ken Russell ends his Monitor film, expertly doing the twist with Boshier, later going sole and dancing with unalloyed pleasure, campily glamming it up with an old fur stole and giving the camera a broad, saucy wink.

As 54321 demonstrates, Boty had a frank and open attitude towards female sexuality. In the Dunn book, she talks about it as being a potentially liberating and expressive force. ‘I think it can be as varied as being alive can be varied’, she said. ‘I think it has all the variations of being alive and feelings and things like that’. She differentiates between this natural sexuality, expressive of individual personality, and sex as represented in pornography or sensationalist literature (she cites Harold Robbins’ 60s blockbuster The Carpetbaggers, which combines the allure of instant, disposable wealth and readily available sex). She doesn’t find them offensive so much as completely unrealistic and essentially ridiculous. Such representations are the subject of her 1965 painting It’s a Man’s Man’s World II (the title, taken from the James Brown song, once more reflecting her love of pop music), a collation of images of the naked female body taken from porn mags, with a triangle of pubic hair as its focal point. The central body, around which the others are arranged, has its head and lower legs edited out, a decapitation and dismemberment which erases any hint of personality beyond the sexual charactistics. The arms hang limply at the side, offering no sense of invitation. This is a body presented as a passive object, a locus of anonymous masturbatory lust. Most of the surrounding women are granted faces, although these mainly convey expressions of boredom, weariness and distraction, when they’re not attempting standard ‘sultry’ looks. This pornographic collage is set against a landscape in which a lake leads to an island with a classical temple set within a grove, all beneath skies of azure, summery blue. Perhaps there is an allusion to Diana or Artemis here, the chastely untouchable Goddess of the moon and the hunt. It is also a very calming, meditative scene, its effect counterbalancing the inflammatory intent of the collage it enfolds. The refraction of images intended for the male gaze through the perspective of a female artist well aware of their power gives them a quizzical air, and goes some way towards reclaiming these women’s bodies, restoring the tarnished innocence of their sensual selves. Boty is very direct and uninhibited in her use of sexual language to talk about her own sense of her self and her sexuality in her conversation with Nell Dunn (whose own book of short stories, Up The Junction, published in 1963, was similarly frank in its attitude towards sex). Talking about being hit on in an obvious way by a man, she notes that ‘once they start doing it you think “oh you, you just want a quick fuck” or something’. She also recalls growing up as a girl in a house full of boys and, with startling, self-revealing honesty, says ‘I felt guilty about having an ugly cunt’, detailing her efforts to pull it out of shape to be more like a boy. She uses the words in their literal, descriptive sense in the name of openness and honesty, banishing shame by denying them their shocking power, and reclaiming them from their use as aggressive and abusive profanities. Germaine Greer also attempted to reclaim the ‘c’ word as a possessive and prideful word for women, enabling an informal and guilt-free sense of their own sexuality, in the 60s and 70s. But as she reveals in the 2006 BBC lexicographical programme Balderdash and Piffle, her attempts failed, and she confesses that she’s now rather glad that the word has retained its power to shock. Still, it seems a shame that the innocent usage to which Boty put it, and the guilt-free attitude which that usage embodies, has thus far failed to come to pass, the word continuing to be used as a verbal punch.

Pauline also talks in Dunn’s book about her 1963 marriage to Clive Goodwin, which took place only ten days after they’d first met. She makes anonymous reference to ‘the married man I got involved with’ (clearly Philip Saville) who ‘pursued me so violently, it was a fantastic surprise’. He never made any commitment to the relationship, however, despite his ‘terribly romantic point of view’ and the fact that ‘he talked in such a romantic language all the time’. Of Goodwin, on the other hand, for whom she dumped Saville by letter, she says ‘I just got on terribly well with him’. Friendship and companionability on an equal footing proved more attractive than the old fashioned romantic courtship which had previously impressed her, but whose theatrical gestures could disguise an underlying dishonesty and evasiveness. She further says about Goodwin that ‘he was the very first man I met who really liked women’, adding that this was ‘a terribly rare thing in a man’. Boty andGoodwin’s flat in Cromwell Road was at the heart of a bohemian artistic milieu in the Ladbroke Grove and Notting Hill area of London. David Mellor includes a map in his book The 60s Art Scene In London which plots the proximity of various artists and countercultural figures who lived in this part of town. These include Derek Boshier, the abstract artist Robyn Denny, artist, writer and activist Caroline Coon, Peter Blake, journalist and future bestselling writer Shirley Conran, pop artist Joe Tilson, author and literary editor Alexander Trocchi, and the photographer John Cowan, whose studio, just around the corner from Cromwell Road, was used as David Hemmings’ lair in Blow Up. The Royal College of Art was also a short stroll away across Kensington Gardens.

Boty’s version of pop art took into account figures from European culture as much as it did American popular and commercial imagery. She was a big film fan, and two of her paintings pay homage to contemporary stars of European ‘art’ cinema, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Monica Vitti. They go together to form a kind of diptych, male and female aspects of cool European cinematic glamour. Jean-Paul Belmondo, the talkative star of Jean-Luc Godard films such as A Bout de Souffle, Une Femme est Une Femme and Pierrot Le Fou is shown looking back over his shoulder, his gaze veiled by dark glasses, just as Cathy MacGowan’s was in 54321. He is set against a hot orange background, suggestive of sultry French Riviera climates, with a line of pink-outlined red and green hearts scrolling across the top of the frame. An efflorescence of red petals ripples out above his white hat, a symbol of female sexuality which both represents his attractiveness to women and his feminine side (the two perhaps not unrelated). For all his attempts to emulate Bogart and other exemplars of classic Hollywood masculinity, he is far too loquacious to fit in with their terse taciturnity, and his self-conscious imitations merely serve to mark the divide between American and Southern European ideas of film stardom (as far as the new wave directors thought of them, anyway). The face of Monica Vitti, the muse of Michaelangelo Antonioni and star of his films L’Avventura, L’Eclisse and Red Desert, is enclosed within another of Boty’s curvaceous red hearts. She’s nothing but heart, an embodiment of emotional generosity, albeit of an alienated, frequently directionless and existentially vexed variety. It’s a love looking for an object, a meaningful and worthy recipient for its brimful capacity. In the Dunn book, Boty talks about having ‘always sort of worshipped women in a funny sort of way. I’ve always thought they were terribly beautiful’. This sense of beauty, present in the Vitti icon, is also presented in an objectified form in her It’s A Man’s Man’s World II paintingits spirit captured in her best known work (largely due to its having been bought by the Tate) The Only Blonde In The World.

This is generally assumed to be a portrait of Marilyn Monroe, but could in fact be any Marilynesque blonde, full of self-delighting joy. The street in which she is placed is set against a green background, Boty’s favoured green. Boty’s bright, reddish orange forms vivid, kinetic swirls within the field of green, and the bluish grey of the pavement arcs out into an ox-bowed tributary through the green where the blonde’s foot makes a circling turn. This colour is also used, along with yellow, for the truncated diagonal stripes on the right hand side, which gives the illusion that the canvas is furling up in a tubular wave. Combined with the coloured swirls and the ‘leaking’ pavement, this makes the background seem like a crackling, shifting energy field, its source the blonde in the centre, contained within her own cropped band, the edit of the present moment she so fully inhabits. She wrapped in an armour of fur, a soft-edged blur of white paint, and her piled-up, flossy burr of blonde hair is a protective crown, her shimmering dress a shirt of chain-mail. She is in her own tightly-framed, self-contained world, the composition formed around her and taking its cues from her movements. The greens, yellows and oranges are her colours, the forms they take her shapes, the emanations of her spirit.

Boty also produced many collages from pictures cut out of art books or illustrated Victorian story books, sometimes also adding non-pictorial materials to add textural or associative detail – wallpaper or fragments of lace or doilies. Untitled (with Pink Lace and Curls of Hair) from 1960-62, included in Brandon Taylor’s Collage: The Making of Modern Art, sets a ‘swimsuit issue’ magazine cover against circles of delicate pink lace. Perhaps it was this picture which inspired Kim Gordon, herself a visual artist as well as a musician, to write the song Swimsuit Issue, included on the Sonic Youth album Dirty. Three made-up faces form an identikit row, differently coloured curls of artificial hair offering the promise of individualisation. A large hairy hand grasping a baby’s tiny one between its fingers adds an incongruously male element to the overdetermined femininity of the display. Below this composition, a seascape with clipper ships is inserted, rooting these ideals of femininity within a Victorian imperial past. This seascape also recasts the aspects of the feminine above in terms of Odyssean sirens or fairy tale mermaids, the swimsuit issue displaying consciously constructed temptresses of the waves. Pauline shows off more of her collages to Peter Blake in Pop Goes the Easel. They have the playful wit, delight in surreal juxtaposition, and irreverent use of images from art history and sober Victorian engravings found in Terry Gilliam’s animations for Monty Python. Perhaps some influence was at play there. In Pop Goes the Easel, Ken Russell is clearly fascinated by Boty’s collages, his camera gliding over them in lingering close-up, focussing in on their detail.

The Titanic sinks below the horizon of a Constable landscape; A Victorian pin-up and a performing circus dog pose in front of ornamental fountains and the Orcus mouth marking the entrance to the underworld in the Park of the Monsters in Bomarzo, Italy; A boy and girl from a Victorian story book hover above a jungle canopy, a giant hand holding a pair of secateurs moving in to snip the girl’s head off as if it were a faded exotic bloom; Another giant woman’s hand rises behind a dome-capped rotunda of a Turkish cast with minarets to either side, a group of classical statues held casually between its fingers like a neglected cigarette; A glossily nail-varnished hand plucks a rose which emerges from the base of a pine cone, a Victorian mother and child drifting above it as if it were an irregularly shaped, blooming moon, with a cigar-shaped, Jules Verne-esque airship puttering past in the background (‘an occasional spaceship flying through the sky’, as Boty puts it to Blake); A landscape with lace, patterned wallpaper and catalogue flowers is irradiated by a doily sun; a Romantic lake and mountain scene has a lace church superimposed, the head of a Victorian lady placed at the apex of its spire, perhaps reflecting the Victorian notion of female sanctity; A naval seascape with ships anchored in a tropic bay, a military hussar standing proud in the foreground, is given a sky filled with jelly beans (immediately reminding me of Harlan Ellison’s story Repent, Harlequin! Said the Ticktockman, in which the trickster protagonist releases a shower of jellybeans onto a timebound city of the future from his flying sled). You can imagine them blazing with a riot of colour, a glorious, psychedelicized sunset of Empire.

There’s a cut-out photograph of a couple kissing, he holding a giant egg (an image with its own built-in surrealism), looking like they are newly married and playing their part in an ancient and now obscure fertility ritual. Behind them, soldiers parade with bayonets extended, a sharply erect masculine symbolism to contrast with the rounded smoothness of the egg. The possibility of trouble and conflict lies ahead, the picture seems to suggest, with the fragile egg liable to end up in fragments of shattered shell trampled by the passing parade – a de-romanticised view of marriage. Another picture has a striped-helmeted American footballer, a gun-toting GI, a serious-faced Cheetah and a starlet on the phone looming over what looks like an Imperial Indian palace. They tower over the building’s imposing facade like larger than life pop cultural icons, the colossal gods of American culture sweeping the British imperial past aside, the American footballer hopping over the walls with contemptuous ease. Above them, flower moon hangs in the sky. Elsewhere, Boty creates a composite art historical landscape linking north and south, with a Renaissance Italian scene leading on to a sheared off fragment of Arnold Bocklin’s Isle of the Dead, with a classical dome added to lighten its sepulchral gothic gloom. A flower bomb is plummeting from the sky, either to destroy the landscape or to carpet it with a hippy carpet of blooming colour. Boty gives Peter Blake a guide to the imagery in several of her collages, which blend high and pop art matter together, dissolving the perceived barriers which usually divided them. She points out the Goya portrait of Dona Isabel de Porcel from the National Gallery, a group of 1930s debutantes, a row of badges with FDR’s face on, Beethoven’s pen, Rudee Valee (Blake recognises him), Brendan Behan captured like a genie in one of his own bottles of booze, Jerry Lewis and the Giant head of Somerset Maugham (which is very much like the head which Gilliam cracks open in the Monty Python titles). The iris of Maugham’s eye contains the face of a woman, the female hidden within the regard of the old artistic guard. It’s an image which brings to mind the face of Jorge Luis Borges shot through the layers of Mick Jagger’s brain on the head of a bullet at the hallucinatory denouement of Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell’s film Performance – an image of mental penetration which Boty replicates here in less violent fashion. Her female image is beamed into the subconscious in a subtle and unobtrusive way, absorbed in the act of vision.

Boty’s early death casts a retrospectively tragic shadow over her life. Whilst it seems to have been lived to the full and was packed with excitement, colour and chaotic incident, there are hints of a more troubled side to the surface happiness of her personality, a penumbral aspect of the bright and vivacious woman seen in the Monitor film and in the photographs. In the conversation with Nell Dunn, she talks about having been ‘going through a terrible period of depression’, adding that ‘when you get very depressed everything goes along somewhere down there, on a sort of horrible level’. This certainly seems like an insight from someone who has known moments of darkness. She also suffered from depression when she was a young girl after her mother contracted TB, leaving her to take on the maternal duties, and resulting in the development of a terrible stammer. This complexity, the mixture of an outgoing sociability with introspection and self-doubt, dispels the image of the ‘dumb blonde’ which was imposed on her by some at the time. This can certainly be seen in the newspaper cutting included in David Mellor’s book The Sixties Art Scene in London, detailing her membership of the Anti-Ugly Action Society, a student body which opposed the widespread destruction of London’s architectural fabric and the rapid development of war-damaged sites in the name of instant, functional (and cheap) transformation which had more to do with real estate profiteering than the desire to create a bright, modernist future (the group were certainly not anti-modernist fogies). The journalist ignores any serious point which the group might have been making behind their playful gestures, instead choosing to remark that ’20-year-old Miss Boty, who is secretary of that very indignant organisation the Anti-Ugly Action Society, is, well, very pretty indeed. As you can see from my picture’. Barry Miles, in London Calling, his countercultural history of the capital, describes an Anti-Ugly demonstration against the new Kensington library building, led by Boty and her fellow Royal College of Art stained glass student Kenneth Baynes, whom she pushed in a bath chair in his fancy dress guise as Christopher Wren. He notes that a television interviewer approached her (and I picture him as one of Eric Idle’s smarmy, Whickerish take-offs from Monty Python) and asked her ‘what’s a pretty girl like you doing at an event like this?’ John Betjeman later turned up, smiled at her and gave the demonstrators his wholehearted blessing. Boty was, of course, well aware of the power of the happy-go-lucky dumb blonde role, and the ways in which it could be used. She comments on it in the Dunn book, showing an awareness of the attraction of such a simplistic, one-dimensional feminity to men. She tells her ‘I’ve been fairly lucky in that I’m pretty attractive to me because I have a – quite a sexual sort of quality but along with a thing that’s kind of like, oh a happy dumb blonde you see’. It’s an image she plays on in some of the photographs she posed for, always with an element of self-conscious parody. This is also evident in the scenes in the Monitor film where she brushes out her hair in the morning and pauses for a moment in front of the mirror with a shock-headed lion’s mane; and in her mimed rendition of Shirley Temple’s The Good Ship Lollypop.

Pauline does Shirley - on the Good Ship Lollypop

The tragic elements of Boty’s life where sadly echoed in the fates of her husband Clive Goodwin and her daughter Boty Goodwin, as Adam Curtis outlines in his typically wide-ranging and compelling article Dream On. Clive died in 1977 after suffering a brain haemorrhage in the lobby of an American hotel and having been thrown out and taken to a cell by police who immediately assumed he was drunk. Clive and Pauline’s daughter Boty Goodwin died in Los Angeles in 1995 of a heroin overdose. She’d been studying art there and, as Curtis reveals, had been plagued with anxieties about her body image, just as her mother had as a child. She’d been brought up after Clive’s death by the poet Adrian Mitchell and his wife Celia Hewitt. Mitchell wrote a moving poem reflecting on her death, Especially When It Snows, which you can hear him reading here (it's the second poem in).

Boty continues to inspire artists of her generation to this day. Derek Boshier’s 2011 painting Pauline’s Gone Digital summons her spirit into the modern era via its all-pervasive technologies, images of her works and moments from her life captured within the frames of mobile phones. Childlike portraits of Derek and Pauline appearing at the edges of the picture, which is laid out like a digital diptych, as if it were a votive offering, an act of remembrance. Marianne Faithfull also included The Only Blonde In The World in the Innocence and Experience exhibition at the Tate Liverpool which she curated, where it kept company with portraits of her, Patti Smith and William Burroughs by Robert Mapplethorpe, Man Ray’s Indestructible Object, his metronome bearing the watchful eye of Lee Miller, and paintings by Odilon Redon, William Blake, Richard Dadd and Aubrey Beardsley – an interesting gathering, who would no doubt have found much in common. Pauline’s spirit is captured for all time in its reflective and bright aspects in the spoken rhythms and linguistic idiosynracies of the transcribed Dunn conversation and in the Monitor film. In the latter we can see her doing her mimed routine to Shirley Temple’s On The Good Ship Lollypop in top hat and tails; follow her wandering around the fun fair with her artistic compadres, riding the dodgems and taking pot shots alongside the boys on the rifle range; hear chatting with her soulmate Peter Blake (they seem inseparable in the film) in a relaxed and open manner, her voice refined by without any trace of hauteur; admire her expert twisting with Derek Boshier on the dancefloor, and enjoy her shimmying solo with an old stole and giving the camera a broad wink. Russell’s camera seems to be in love with her throughout, and it is with her that the film ends – sitting quietly, an inward look on her face as she contemplates one of her canvases.

Perhaps a fitting image on which to end would be Pauline’s last painting, made in 1966, a cheeky little picture called Bum. This was created for her friend Kenneth Tynan’s theatrical revue O! Calcutta, a show which included contributions from John Lennon, Edna O’Brien, Sam Shepard and Samuel Beckett (although Beckett’s Breath was not, in the end, used), and which featured on-stage nudity. It would be another four years before it reached the London stage, opening in July 1970 at the Roundhouse. The titular buttocks of Boty’s painting proudly display themselves against a royal blue background within a theatrical proscenium arch glowing with vivid reds and magentas, with curlicued mouldings of lemon yellow and her favoured green. Underneath the stage, the word bum is written with gleeful childishness in loud red, outlined in cheerful coloured stripes and op-art zig-zags. It’s an innocent celebration of the body and its pleasures, and is imbued with a raspberry-blowing vulgarity which has always been at the heart of British popular culture. George Harrison displayed a similarly sophisticated wit when he deliberately mispronounced Pauline’s surname as Botty when he was on a radio programme with her. Bum shows that her work could be both provocative, political, celebratory and just plain fun, often all at the same time. It’s a fine rear with which to sign off, a well-rounded backside presented to the world to say goodbye.



Keith Seatman said...

Wonderful stuff indeed

Steve said...

Terrific stuff Jez - Yet more stuff I didn't know!

Jez Winship said...

Yes, Pauline is a real lost heroine of the 60s. Happily, the Art Fund has just helped buy her painting Colour Her Gone (and this one really is of Marilyn Monroe)for Wolverhampton Art Gallery ( and there's going to be an exhibition of her work there next year (in June, I think). Hopefully it will see the start of the great Boty revival.

Steve said...

Thanks Jez - FYI you and I make a fleeting background appearance on the Michael Samuels interview recently posted on Spacex (and I look as though I've had too much wine)

Jez Winship said...

Fortunately they didn't film the Saturday interview - I'd had a few ales and unwisely topped it off with a touch of the grape, and sprawled mutely in the corner. It looks like we've been strategically placed and directed to appear to be discussing the exhibition in a vaguely intellectual fashion. Nice close up filming of the sculptures, though.

Adam Smith said...

Thanks for the heads-up on Wolverhampton and Colour Her Gone. Only Blonde is deffo MM by the way: Pauline copied a photo in Life magazine 20 Apr 1959. This and more in the updated 'Now You See Her', which will be an e-book, soonish. Early 2013 probably. Might print a few copies too.

Jez Winship said...

Ah, that clears it up about the Only Blonde (in my head at least). I'm really looking forward to reading Now You See Her when it comes out. Hopefully next year's exhibition will result in an increased interest.

Steve said...

For another (shorter) contribution to the Pauline Boty revival see the 'Voices of East Anglia' web site:

Jez Winship said...

Excellent - I like the topsy-turvy David Bailey photograph. Thanks for directing people's attention over here, too.

Unknown said...

Only just discovered Pauline Boty. Strange coincidence, she was born on the same calendar day I was. Trawling through Battersea Park Funfair images on the internet - was taken there as a child - when up popped her face titled 'untitled woman' which turned out to be Pauline at the funfair. Thank you for the blog articles which have added to the little I know about this important 60s artist, the Russell film I have also watched courtesy of the Beeb.