Peace Through Chemistry Roy Lichtenstein
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Commercial printing methods have been fundamental for Roy Lichtenstein’s celebrated Pop style since the outset of his career. The artist developed his signature visual language by merging the formalism of fine art with the vocabulary of material culture.
Lichtenstein’s Peace Through Chemistry, executed in the early 1970s, repurposes the inescapable imagery of commercial culture, thereby counteracting notions of classical art. This quietly ironic five part series is composed of four prints and one bronze plate. The artist exhibits masterfully orchestrated compositions, fuelled by his inclination for social commentary.
Peace Through Chemistry presents horizontal rectangles divided into three panels, in the style of a triptych, each imbued with its own conceptual value. The panels are also halved by a strong diagonal line running across them, resulting in the picture plane being split into six triangles in total. The partitions are more defined in the print editions, demarcated by Lichtenstein’s traditional black outlines.
The four lithographs in Peace Through Chemistry use a solid white support, strategically placed patterns and rich primary colours to varying degrees. The comic book shapes in these prints are inflated and their origins are instantly recognisable. Tone and texture are achieved through the differently sized Ben Day dots and the superimposed stripes on colour fields. Contrastively, the one surprising bronze piece of the sequence, owing to its material, allows the engraving to flow into one continuous coppery image.
Sources for the formal composition of Peace Through Chemistry can be traced back to Lichtenstein’s interest in the sleek industrial design of the 1930s. The stylised layout also functions as a cubist revision of the propaganda disseminated throughout America over this period. Commissioned by authorities during the Great Depression era, posters were ordered in reaction to the disastrous economic downturn. These illustrations were called the WPA Federal Art Project, and announced new cultural, educational and health programs issued by the government. The bright and creative placards meant to motivate and unite people, reminding them of shared collective values and the potential of a brighter future.
Peace Through Chemistry depicts a similarly bright and schematised progression, starting with natural imagery and concluding with a portrait of scientific growth. The artist uses elementary symbols to mark the different themes, rendering every shape an inanimate object. As such, he situates a leafy branch on the left, factory gears in the middle and the geometric profile of a man holding a test tube on the right. The angularity of the industrial elements depicted are offset by the curvilinear lines alluding to nature. The imagery of Peace Through Chemistry ultimately pins humanity against machinery, ridiculing industrialisation’s claim that peace is achievable through science.
Pop Art rejects widely accepted societal beliefs and the reinforcement of these beliefs through popular culture. In line with this sentiment, Lichtenstein’s Peace Through Chemistry repurposes recognisable forms and saturates them in irony. The piece is straightforward in its criticism of contemporary social and political change, as it literally portrays industrialisation pushing nature out of the picture frame. Peace Through Chemistry’s compositions are comprehensible and striking, while Lichtenstein’s message with the series is strongly thought provoking.
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