Photo courtesy of John Timber and Gazelli Art House
Artillery Row On Art

The second life of Pauline Boty

Critics should not drown this much-needed revival in emotive clichés

Is Pauline Boty a forgotten artist? The short life of the bright star of the British Pop movement, who dazzled swinging London and died from cancer at 28, is certainly framed that way.

A new exhibition, Pauline Boty: A Portrait, which opened last week at Gazelli Art House in London, has been accompanied by a round of write-ups of the Boty story — headlined without exception with a “forgotten” tag, often with “tragic” thrown in for extra emotive pull.

Yet Boty is anything but forgotten. The Only Blonde in the World, her best-known and most accomplished 1963 painting, hangs in Tate Britain alongside work by her friend and contemporary Sir Peter Blake. As well as the Gazelli show, this year has seen a definitive biography, Pauline Boty: British Pop Art’s Sole Sister, by the US writer and historian Marc Kristal. There was also a blue plaque unveiled at Boty’s former flat in Holland Park, and a dizzying round of Boty talks and events.

Next year brings two film releases: a feature-length Boty documentary by Mono Media Films and Channel X, and Nell and Pauline, a short dramatisation of the Boty’s 1963 interviews with the writer Nell Dunn. Natalie Gibson, the textile designer and Boty’s art school friend, tells me someone contacts her every week in search of comment for one Boty-related project or another.

Far from forgotten, nearly 60 years after her death, Boty’s currency has never been higher.

A better question might be, why does Boty’s work still resonate powerfully? And why the attention now?

Part of the answer lies in her mystique. With her vivacity, beauty and almost supernatural ability to be wherever the action was, Boty has come to embody a lost era of post-war British dynamism (her classmates at the Royal College of Art described her as “technicolour”).

More important than charisma and allure, however, was her instinct for skewering the male gaze.

Today, Boty’s heirs are everywhere, from Linder Sterling to Sarah Lucas to Mickalene Thomas. It is nonetheless difficult to think of another British female artist of the early mass-media era who critiqued feminine objectification with Boty’s directness. Her prescience was identified long ago by many women, and a few men, and it is their cumulative efforts that are only just garnering attention.

At the Gazelli show, Colour Her Gone, Boty’s 1962 painting of Marilyn Monroe has the actress contorting her face into a rigid smile, whilst blank, grey space threatens to blot her out. An unfinished 1965 portrait of a naked Claudia Cardinale hints at a similar trap.

Untitled With Lace and Hair Colour Advert, an early-career collage from 1960, holds a woman in a net of paraphernalia — lingerie, lipstick, dye — against a blue horizon of possibility.

Her metaphors are highly potent — feminist fury mixed with mirth

These are clunky visual metaphors, perhaps. Boty’s talent was inchoate. They are also highly potent, however — feminist fury mixed with mirth.

By contrast, Blake’s 1965 painting Pin-Up Girl (Jayne Mansfield) turned up this year at the European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht. In some ways, it is Boty-esque — a flat, cartoonish Hollywood blonde with that rictus smile. It is a wonderful painting — but Blake treated Mansfield’s breasts as a landscape. His actress is a visual joke. There is no empathy.

Boty may be everywhere now, but she was missing for a long time. Until 30 years ago, she and her work were in real danger of being forgotten, according to Kristal.

After her death and in the pre-digital age, many paintings vanished from public view. When her husband, the literary agent Clive Goodwin, died abruptly in 1977, her parents kept them in the attic.

Boty’s reappraisal seems to have been led by her daughter Katy (later Boty) Goodwin, who in 1993 took curator David Alan Mellor to the family farm to show him her mother’s paintings, which were by that time stored in a barn in Kent. They had been saved by Bridget, Boty’s sister-in-law, from relegation to the tip.

A handful ended up in The Art Scene in London, a Barbican exhibition curated by Mellor and later at other galleries. But they sold slowly and at low prices (though amongst them was The Only Blonde in the World, which was acquired around that time by the Tate).

Kristal says most academic interest in Boty was led by women, in particular Gwyneth Berman, Terry Riggs, Kalliopi Minioudaki and Sue Tate (Boty’s daughter died aged 29).

In 2013 Boty was given a retrospective at the Wolverhampton Art Gallery curated by Sue Tate, and in 2017 Ali Smith’s bestselling book Autumn included a partial retelling of the Boty story. Gazelli founder Mila Askarova has included Boty’s work in group shows for years.

“All these women kept pushing at the door,” says Kristal. “There must have been a recognition, even if only intuitive, that here was something special that was missing from the culture and that it was needed.”

Today’s Boty revival is partly down to their cumulative efforts over 30 years. Askarova says the Gazelli exhibition was intended to mark the 10th anniversary of the Wolverhampton show. The timing with Kristal’s biography was coincidence.

Prices, too, are rising. In March Boty’s painting Bum from the estate of Kenneth Tynan sold at Christie’s for nearly four times its estimate.

Pop culture historian Travis Elborough puts the Boty revival down partly to a wider “new urgency” to rebalance art history to take in women’s work, which has also seen a string of womens’ retrospectives and big-selling books such as Katy Hessel’s Art Without Men. (Even so, Kristol says it took him nine years to find a publisher for his biography.)

Boty was a gadabout, frequently filmed and photographed at parties, and Elborough is surprised that no one in the 1990s made a case for her as the first ladette. “But I suspect her activism and the political content of her later work is more in sync with the present than possibly then when we were all supposedly classless and boom and bust had been banished by New Labour.”

Vinny Rawding, the filmmaker behind the forthcoming documentary, thinks Boty’s persistent framing as a “tragic artist” is a narrative that obscures a more difficult truth. “She was just getting started,” he says. “And I suppose we are all just catching up.”

Boty is far from forgotten, and to label her as such is to do her a disservice. Even the “tragic” label is a hindrance — her life was short, but it was far from a tragedy.

The irony is that we risk turning her from the dynamo she was into a permanent victim, much like the women she made the subjects of her work.

Boty was, more accurately, an antecedent to the second wave of feminism, which she did not live to see. What she may have gone on to achieve had she lived is the most tantalising question of all.

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