"Whaam!": An Artwork by Roy Lichtenstein
Roy Lichtenstein was born in New York in October 1923 and died there in September 1997. He became interested in art while at school and studied fine arts at Ohio State University, where he became a teacher with his career being interrupted by serving for three years in the Army between 1943 and 1946.
He experimented with several artistic styles, including cubism and abstract expressionism, until – in the early 1960s - he developed his own highly individual style that made him a leader of the movement known as Pop Art.
Lichtenstein’s most famous technique was derived from American comic strips which used devices such as dot-printing and strong primary colours to enable them to be printed cheaply in mass-circulation newspapers. Lichtenstein simply took these conventions – and actual strip-cartoon images – and blew them up to huge sizes, with “Whaam!” probably being the best-known example.
Whaam! dates from 1963 is now part of the permanent collection of London’s Tate Modern gallery. It is a two-canvas work, thirteen feet wide (in total) and five-and-a-half feet deep. The materials used are acrylics and oils.
The scene is one fighter plane firing at a second plane, which explodes. The attacking plane, in the left-hand panel, is accompanied by the pilot’s words: “I pressed the fire control … and ahead of me rockets blazed through the sky …” (in block capital letters). The exploding plane in the right-hand panel has the word “WHAAM!” in large letters alongside the lurid red and yellow flames of the explosion.
Lichtenstein took this image from an actual strip-cartoon, drawn by Irv Novick in 1962 for a publication entitled “All-American Men of War” that was published by DC Comics. He has therefore been accused of plagiarism in his work – not only here but in other works – but in his defence it could be said that many artists down the centuries have done similar things by taking an existing image and presenting it to a different public in a novel way. That was certainly how Lichtenstein himself defended his work.
In order to create his work, Lichtenstein made preliminary drawings which he projected onto his primed canvases before drawing round the shapes in pencil. The area of dots, namely the sky and the body of the plane, was added by pushing oil paint through an aluminium mesh with a small scrubbing brush. The outlines were then filled in with acrylic paint.
The net result of a strip-cartoon blown up to a massive size excites amusement rather than horror at the violence of the scene. This is war, but it is stupid war. It is a fantasy scene that cannot be taken seriously.
Lichtenstein created this work at the same time that the United States was becoming involved in the Vietnam War and the artist – who was also a military veteran – is surely telling his fellow Americans that it makes no sense to enter conflicts that can be reduced to comic-book images.
Another possible interpretation is that this work in “diptych” form harks back to medieval altarpieces that likewise told people about the horrors of Hell that would await people who did not repent of their sins.