Whaam! Roy Lichtenstein
- Medium: Lithograph
- Format: Signed Print
- Year: 1967
- Size: 147cm x 63cm
- Framing details: Not framed
- Edition size: 3000
- Signed: No
Lithograph, signed print, 1967
Whaam! is one of Roy Lichtenstein’s most important works, it shows the left hand part of the iconic diptych, the first part in the narrative sequence of the two images that anticipates the violent explosion in the second. The work depicts an American fighter plane firing a missile into an enemy aircraft in the right hand canvas, and the text in the yellow speech bubble reads ‘I PRESSED THE FIRE CONTROL… AND AHEAD OF ME ROCKETS BLAZED THROUGH THE SKY…’. Rendered in Lichtenstein’s characteristic use of the Ben-Day dot and delineated, comic print aesthetic, Whaam! is an archetypal piece from the prolific artist’s canonical œuvre.
Politically loaded or socially subversive statements are barely concealed beneath Lichtenstein’s vibrant colours and graphic forms, and Whaam!is no exception. Created at the same time as the war in Vietnam was escalating, the political implications of Whaam! become hard to ignore. The futility of war is suggested by the superficial aesthetic depicting aggressive, careless masculine ideals of conquest and violence, which in fact serves to convey a poignant message. Lichtenstein’s also served in the US army in the 1940s.
The original composition of Whaam! is taken from a panel drawn by Irv Novick which was published in issue number 89 of All-American Men of War, published by DC Comics in the previous year, February 1962. Altering and adapting the original, Lichtenstein transforms the image and imbues it with his own artistic identity; far from being a simple copyist, Lichtenstein was sophisticated in his reinvention of the visual language of popular culture. In his own words, "I am nominally copying, but I am really restating the copied thing in other terms. In doing that, the original acquires a totally different texture. It isn't thick or thin brushstrokes, it's dots and flat colours and unyielding lines."
The year 1963 was an important one for the artist, during it he made some of his most well-known and successful works alongside Whaam!, including Hopeless and Drowning Girl. Depicted in his bright, vibrant colour palette and with underlying parody, they transform cliché into works of art, with a satirical take on popular fiction that elevates trivial or familiar subjects into meaningful social commentary, blurring the distinction between high art and visual culture. This prosperous period of Lichtenstein’s career would go on not only to cement his name at the forefront of the American Pop Art movement, but to shape the trajectory of modern art.
The original work, Whaam! was first exhibited at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York City when it was created in 1963, and was later purchased by the Tate Gallery, London, in 1966. It has been on permanent display at Tate Modern since 2006.
Born in Manhattan in 1923, Roy Lichtenstein was a leading figure in the Pop Art movement during the second half of the 20th century. His distinctive artistic style is inspired by the visual language of advertising and mass consumerism that pervaded American popular culture during his lifetime, and his work recalls a society of widespread commercialism that has remained powerfully relevant to this day. He borrowed artistic techniques from the commercial printing industry in his work, for example his appropriation of the Ben-Day dots, a technique derived from the images reproduced in newspaper print, meticulously recreating the industrial process in his own hand. He also produced works that were influenced by comic strips, appropriating and parodying the typical motifs such as lettering and speech balloons, all of which would become signatures of his artwork. These distinctive and culturally relevant tropes are defining elements of Whaam!, a work that exemplifies Lichtenstein’s recognisable and acclaimed style. The comic strip style was a means for the artist to visually represent narrative in an accessible and engaging manner, adeptly incorporating a wide range of subject matter relating to the human condition.