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In Au telephon, 1953, Eduardo Paolozzi presents an ambivalent view of the modern world. A rough sketch of the female body is superimposed onto a fashion illustration from Vogue. The model lifts the receiver of a crudely drawn telephone whose cradle floats impossibly in the background. Using the Surrealist techniques of collage and montage, Au telephon interrupts the magazine’s clean design, layering clumsy, hand-drawn lines over the photographic image. It is typical of Paolozzi’s work from that period, exploring the relationship between popular culture, machine technology, communication and the human body.

Paolozzi’s interest in consumer culture can be traced to his childhood in Leith, Edinburgh, where the artist’s family owned a confectionery shop whose windows were a collage-like display of advertisements. As a student at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, between 1945 and 1947, Paolozzi indulged his passion for collecting images. From Lewis’s bookshop on Gower Street and Foyles on the Charing Cross Road, he picked up cheap, war-damaged books. His early collages, from the late 1940s, fuse pictures of classical Greek sculptures with illustrations of machine parts, forcing antiquity and modernity to meet. The first references to women’s underwear appeared in Paolozzi’s work in 1947, with his collage Locks Corsets (in the British Council collection), which placed two lingerie models into a landscape of mechanical components. Au telephon has its roots in these earlier collages, conveying both anxiety and a dark humour.

In June 1947, Paolozzi moved to Paris, where he lived and worked until 1949. His desire to visit France was fuelled by a keen interest in pre-war European art, particularly Surrealism. His heroes included Marcel Duchamp, André Breton and Max Ernst, and he drew inspiration from their use of found images and ready-made objects as materials for making art. In Paris, Paolozzi continued to produce collages, now adding coloured paper, watercolour, gouache and ink onto the surface of these works. He fell in with a crowd of ex-servicemen from the United States who provided him with a wealth of new source material: American magazines such as LifeEsquireLadies’ Home Journal and Time. References to popular culture began to dominate his collage work, as in Dr Pepper, 1948 (in the Tate), a composite of American cars, underwear models, cartoons, consumer durables and food. The impact of Paolozzi’s time in Paris is evident in Au telephon, not least in its (misspelt) French title.

On returning to London, Paolozzi accepted a teaching job at the Central School of Arts and Crafts. He was assigned to the textiles department, despite having no practical experience in the field. Encouraged by the experimental ethos at the school, Paolozzi took to textile design almost immediately. When the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) opened in London in 1950, Paolozzi and his colleagues from the Central School began using the gallery as a site for avant-garde exhibitions. By 1952, many of them had become members of the Independent Group, a collective of artists, architects, theorists and designers whose discussions were hosted by the ICA. In April of that year, Paolozzi performed a talk for the group. Using an epidiascope projector, he presented his collages and scrapbook pages, alongside torn-out sheets from American magazines, saying very little throughout the display. This presentation, later known as Bunk, is now seen as a formative moment in the development of British Pop Art. Through Bunk, Paolozzi questioned the role of popular culture in contemporary life, looking for meaning in what might otherwise have been seen as throwaway ephemera. Au telephon takes a mass-produced image and makes it unfamiliar and strange. In doing so, Paolozzi asks the viewer to reconsider the magazine page, to find something more complex and crude hiding beneath the glossy surface.

Rosie Ram, PhD candidate at the Royal College of Art