'The subject and title evolved from the surrealist ideas of ‘free association ‘ that I had been interested in as a student. As a junior member of the Military Historical Society I had also been familiar with the conventions and graphics used in describing the field of battle, I realised that we made sense of these maps by scanning the surface. For me this chimed with the way I looked at abstract painting. The painted field of khaki became the General’s tunic and the order of battle became his medals. This picture, in theme and spirit, relates to the Battle of Hastings, in the Tate collection' (Allen Jones, private correspondence, 27 April 2018).
'The profile head and shoulders of a girl rises from the bottom edge of the canvas. The small prominent rectangle contains her 'ear ring', the constellation of 'the plough'. Her crooked arm is raised towards a group of three patterned rectangles as if she is playing cards. A series of bubbles float from her head towards a large enclosed circular area containing cloud like marks. The sequence forms a disguised comic strip thought balloon.
'This balloon can be read as the head of a Paul Klee like figure 'The General' whose narrow neck and uniform tunic is formed by the large spreading khaki area across the bottom third of the canvas. 'His girl' is playing with his medals. Elements in this picture are repeated in two other works from 1960 The Artist Thinks and City. The artist was involved with 'stream of consciousness' as a method of developing the images in the paintings of this period' (Allen Jones, private correspondence, 2003).
Allen Jones had just turned 22 when he arrived on the M.A. course of the Royal College of Art in autumn 1959 as one of a prodigiously talented and independent-thinking group of young students who were soon to be identified as a major driving force in the nascent Pop Art movement. His comrades-in-arms included the American R.B. Kitaj, five years his senior, who exerted a powerful influence on him and on his colleagues David Hockney, Derek Boshier and Peter Phillips. Jones was perhaps closest then to Hockney in his insistent concentration on the human figure, already with overtones of an erotic response to the female body that was to become a hallmark of his mature style, in contradistinction to the gay relationships promoted in Hockney’s contemporaneous paintings. Though the human form was to prove an unusual focus within the ranks of both British and American Pop Art, for Jones – as for Kitaj and Hockney, both of whom quickly and consistently shunned the Pop label – it was a natural source of fascination because of his allegiances to early 20th Century modernist (particularly French) painting and the facility he had already discovered as a draftsman and especially as a delineator of the human body in the life class.
The General and his Girl was painted after Jones’s single year at the RCA. He had been expelled in summer 1960 for alleged insubordination, much to his own surprise, and returned for a year to Hornsey School of Art in London, where he had previously studied, for a teacher training course. Despite his traumatic removal from the ranks of the artists with whom he had such close affinities, he retained his friendship with them and continued producing paintings that shared key aspects of the ‘Royal College style’. These included a swaggering confidence in quoting the work of other artists, combining notionally unrelated styles of depiction within a single picture; a fascination with pictorial signs drawn from areas outside of a conventional fine art framework such as comic strips, graffiti, heraldry and maps; and an ability to strip a motif to its essence to produce a confrontational and memorable image that lingers in the mind. Immersed at the time in Cubism, in the Orphism of Robert Delaunay, in the poetic inventions of Paul Klee and in the first abstract improvisations of Wassily Kandinsky half a century earlier, Jones made no secret of his orientation towards Europe at a time when American art was in the ascendancy. Images were often ‘discovered’ through a process of sketching indebted to the Surrealist practice of automatic drawing, which sought to tap into the conscious. Jones was also a daring colourist, well-read in colour theory but with a natural intuition for the emotive power of particular hues, as is attested to by the passionate red that floods almost the entire surface of this picture over the four separate conjoined canvases.
Within the apparent simplicity and blunt impact of this painting Jones ranges freely and with great sophistication across a wide spectrum of artistic references. Sometimes he adapted for his own purposes aspects of work he admired by other artists, such as the visceral contrast between the materiality of the painted surface and the exposed areas of canvas, a device employed also in the work of Hockney and Kitaj, all with a common source in Francis Bacon. Recent developments in abstraction – including the paintings of the Abstract Expressionist Barnett Newman, shown in the Tate’s New American Painting survey in 1959, the hard-edge abstractions of another American, Ellsworth Kelly, and the Homage to the Square series initiated in 1950 by the German-born Josef Albers – are succinctly brought to mind within an overall scheme presented insistently as Jones’s own.
There is great wit and humour in the ambiguity with which a shape can at once act as a representation, a formal device and an in-joke or oblique reference to the work of other painters. The constellation of stars placed against the girl’s head – representing the plough as it appears from London on the artist’s birthday – can be read, if one wishes, as a fashionable decoration or piece of jewellery, but also as a homage to the Constellation series of small paintings on paper made by Joan Miró, an artist he greatly admired, between 1939 and 1941; the same constellation appears prominently in another painting of the same year, City a mural-sized canvas painted for the restaurant of the London headquarters of Courtaulds Ltd, confirming its importance as an autobiographical symbol. The shapes inscribed on the general’s medals evoke the timeless designs of mazes and labyrinths; they are suggestive also of badges worn by teenagers to mark their affiliations, presented as pictures within pictures in works such as Self-Portrait with Badges (1961, Tate) by pioneering Pop artist Peter Blake, who had graduated from the RCA six years earlier and who quickly befriended the younger artists. Around the general’s head is an irregular curved shape in a different red, suggestive of the comic strip ‘thinks’ balloon that Jones had incorporated in a key earlier work, The Artist Thinks (1960) and that was to be reconfigured in Thinking About Women (1961-62). Pulling the viewer back and forth from erudite artistic references into popular culture, in the very year in which American Pop artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein were making their first comic-book paintings, Jones displays the chutzpah that was to become a prime characteristic of the art with which he established his international reputation just a few years later.
Sir Duncan Oppenheim, London. Anonymous sale; Christie's, London, 6 June 2003, lot 71 Richard Green Gallery, London Private Collection, acquired from the above in October 2003
Exhibition catalogue, Marks on a canvas, Dortmund, Museum am Ostwall, 1969, p. 61, no. 1, illustrated. Exhibition catalogue, Pop Art in England. Beginnings of a new Figuration1947-63, Hamburg, Arts Council of Great Britain and British Council, Kunstverein, 1976, pp. 71, 132, no. 37, illustrated.
London, ICA, Allen Jones and Howard Hodgkin, February - March 1962, no. 4. Dortmund, Museum am Ostwall, Marks on a canvas, May - July 1969, no. 1. Hamburg, Arts Council of Great Britain and British Council, Kunstverein, Pop Art in England. Beginnings of a new Figuration1947-63, February - March 1976, no. 37: this exhibition travelled to Munich, Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, April - May 1976; and York, City Art Gallery, May - July 1976.
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