Rebecca Savage reflects on 60s Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein’s In the Car, 1963, a colourful work that reminds her of the pre-corona freedoms we’re no longer able to enjoy fully.
I began buying postcards for my wall around the time that I decided to study art history at University in 2013. Since then I have collected mementos of the artworks and exhibitions I have seen in galleries around the country, creating a collection which allows me to showcase my interests as well as my cultural capital on my walls. Displayed proudly in my tiny flat many of these postcards are representative of my own research interests and are focused around British artists working during the early twentieth century. However, some are anomalies, throwing my carefully curated collection into chaos. Like Leonardo da Vinci’s The Virgin of the Rocks which hangs on my fridge – smiling at me serenely every time I reach for the milk.
Since being in lockdown all of these postcards have taken on a new meaning, providing the only art I see that isn’t on my computer screen. As a result of this sudden importance, I find myself looking at certain postcards in a different light, readjusting my views on their significance. Particularly vulnerable to this new way of thinking is a postcard of Roy Lichtenstein’s In the Car, a close-up cartoon-style depiction of a man and woman seen through a car window. The story behind the image is ambiguous, and it is difficult to decipher the relationship of these figures; the man looks almost leeringly at the woman who stares coldly at the road in front of them.
Previously an image which made me uncomfortable and reminded me of my own experiences of unwanted advances by men, now in the time of lockdown it seems a tantalizing reminder of a past life. Indeed, looking at the postcard again I find myself wondering whether it is the woman who holds the power in this scene and whether it will be her who decides how this journey ends. This perspective is hardly ground-breaking. Lichtenstein produced a number of images of young women in powerful positions, directly contrasting their portrayal as housewives and dependents in newspaper cartoons of the time. Exciting and provocative in the 1950s and 1960, now this image feels particularly seductive, as the woman sits confidently less than two meters from a man she may barely know.
I bought this postcard after seeing an exhibition of Lichtenstein’s work at the Scottish National Gallery of Art in Edinburgh in 2015. It was an unseasonably hot Spring day and I must admit that I was drawn to the gallery for its cool interior as much as the art that was on display. In fact, I hadn’t even been aware of the exhibition until I arrived and had never been a particular fan of Lichtenstein’s art. All this changed when I walked into the white exhibition space where I was struck by the huge scale and size of the brightly coloured canvases. Instantly I was transported to the excitement and rush of mid twentieth-century America. To the emergence of new, mass produced, consumer goods, and the exciting possibilities of change within the post war world.
The joy and hope evoked by Lichtenstein’s art feels particularly important today and I find myself feeling thankful to past me who picked the postcard up from the museum shop. The postcard offers the promise of a future where we can dress up, travel and spend time with our friends again. The young woman at the front of Lichtenstein’s painting embodies everything I miss and long for from the real world. Her powerful dress sense (I mean look at that leopard print coat), her carefully applied make-up, and her determination to get where she wants to be, all feel like qualities I can only dream of right now, as I walk aimlessly from bedroom to living room and back again. I long for the kitchen-sink drama of friend’s lives, of disastrous tinder dates dissected over drinks at the pub and arguments with partners over petty issues which are forgotten as soon as they began. All of these feel glorious in comparison to the mundanity of lockdown; where the boredom of weeks inside is uncannily backgrounded by the fear and grief of the pandemic.
Tacked onto my bedroom wall Lichtenstein’s postcard offers me the hope that one day soon we will be able to enjoy freedom and excitement again. That we will be able to put lipstick on rather than a facemask and over-sized rings rather than latex gloves. That we will be able to go out and see friends and family. And that we will be able to travel in a car, less than 2 meters apart, in order to go on an adventure.
Louise Kissa, ‘Comically fake: Lichtenstein, A Retrospective’, Tate Modern, London, March 2013. https://www.neweurope.eu/article/comically-fake-lichtenstein-retrospective-tate-modern-london/(accessed My 2020).
Shan Ross, ‘Roy Lichtenstein exhibition to open in Edinburgh’, March 2015. https://www.scotsman.com/arts-and-culture/roy-lichtenstein-exhibition-open-edinburgh-1510426(accessed May 2020).
Feature image: Roy Lichtenstein’s In the Car, 1963, Scottish National Gallery of Art.
About Rebecca Savage
Rebecca is a PhD student at the University of Birmingham. Her research looks into the lives and works of female poster artists living in Britain between 1900 and 1939. Rebecca’s work considers the intersections between fine art and visual culture and attempts to assess how poster design provided 20th century women with new artistic, social and economic opportunities. Beyond her research Rebecca is keen to share her work with those outside of the academic community, including museums and galleries, poster art dealers, and members of the public. Rebecca can be found on twitter @r_savs and can be emailed at RXS411@bham.ac.uk
This piece was commissioned as part of Postcards in Isolation
In times of loss and separation, art can be a source of inspiration, solace and connection. In her self-conceived series, Postcards in Isolation, writer and editor Rochelle Roberts has turned to the art on her bedroom wall to reflect on the difficulties quarantine and social distancing presents. Looking at artists as disparate as Claude Cahun, Dorothy Cross, Eileen Agar and Dorothea Tanning, Roberts has explored the sadness, uncertainty and joy of life in lockdown, and demonstrated how art can help us grapple with such feelings. As a guest editor for Lucy Writers, Roberts has opened up the series to other writers. See here to read the series so far.