Published  15/09/2005

A tribute to Eduardo Paolozzi

A tribute to Eduardo Paolozzi

Robin Spencer, Paolozzi's biographer and editor of his 'Writings and Interviews',1 has given us permission to record here the tribute that he delivered at the Memorial Reception to Sir Eduardo, which was held close to his donated collection at the Dean Gallery, Edinburgh, on the evening of Monday 25 July 2005. It was organised by Timothy Clifford, Director of the National Galleries of Scotland and Richard Calvocoressi, Director of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, and other distinguished followers of the artist and his work attended.

There is a collage Eduardo made in the 1960s that shows an American image of a starlet ogling a muscle-bound beefcake, surrounded by candy bars, and a television set that shows the single image of a butterfly on the screen. This is quintessential Paolozzi. With just two ideas, he says it all about the transience of capitalism and material culture; more relevant now even than it was 40 years ago. This is called 'Image Fades but Memory Lingers On'. If images do fade, then Eduardo's fade very much slower than those of other artists, because fading images to keep alive certain causes and ideas was central to his art.

Eduardo's imagination could be triggered by a grainy photo in a newspaper or a neglected object in a display case in the corner of a little-visited museum. Either would set him off on his journey: a journey that began, and has also ended, here in Edinburgh.

Nearly half a century ago, he described art as 'The Translation of Experience'. By this, he did not mean that art had to be autobiographical: what he did mean, I think, was that art could not could not help but be, or indeed should be, a reflection of the wider social and political forces driving us all, including himself, the son of a mother and father who emigrated to Scotland from southern Italy early in the last century. It was his fellow Italian-Scot, Richard Demarco, who recently wrote eloquently in his tribute:
To Eduardo, his early beginnings in Edinburgh - long before the term 'Scots-Italian' - became a badge of ethnic identity. Eduardo's own translation of these experiences is the sculpture 'The Manuscript of Monte Cassino' at the top of Leith Walk, Edinburgh. With its firmly planted foot and the open hand of hospitality, it is a symbol of the historic integration of one community being accepted by another. But its fragmentary state also hints at its identity as an oblique memorial to the tragic sinking of the Arandora Star, which fractured the community in Edinburgh in 1940 and resulted in many losses, including Rudolfo Paolozzi, the husband of Carmela and father to Eduardo and Yolanda.
Today, most of us probably think of Eduardo as a great European, as at home in London as he was in Munich, Paris, or Edinburgh. Now that Scotland takes her place with confidence on the world's stage, we do not think it at all unusual if an artist who was born in the Highlands has an exhibition in China, or a Glasgow painter wins the Turner prize. But during Eduardo's career, and even after Richard Demarco brought artists like Joseph Beuys to Edinburgh, cultural identity was defined by a much narrower kind of nationalism. But, now that we are more accustomed to the internationalism in art Eduardo always represented, we should not forget the direct and indirect contribution he has always made to the cultural life of Scotland. It is not noticed, for instance, how often he exhibited new work in Scotland, either before or immediately after showing it in the major international exhibitions. Within a year of his debut representing Great Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1952, and while 'Parallel of Life and Art' (1953) the breakthrough exhibition about art and science was running at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), he sent seven of his recent bronzes to the Society of Scottish Artists exhibition in Edinburgh, care of his old teacher Norman Forrest. There were further exhibitions of recent work, including one at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (1966), which reprised sculpture and prints, centred on the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, first shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1964. And in 1984, he made use of the long run-up to the big exhibition of his work at the Royal Scottish Academy, to develop an entirely new phase of his sculpture, which served him for public and private work for the for the next 15 years.

To these milestones in his professional career should be added the ceiling in relief for Cleish Castle, commissioned by the architect Michael Spens in 1972, which is now fortuitously installed here in the Dean; and the doors for the new Hunterian Art Gallery of Glasgow University a year or two later - all of which happened in Scotland several years before the reliefs were shown publicly, either in London or in international exhibitions abroad. There were also the tapestries, woven to his designs at regular intervals by Archie Brennan and his successors, at the Dovecote Studio, from the 1960s until quite recently.

And there can be few institutions in Scotland, whether public or private, from the universities to the schools of art, who have not been the beneficiaries of Eduardo's gifts, either of his work, his advice, enthusiasms or ideas. And for much of this time, his influence was at work behind the scenes, in the formation of Gabrielle Keiller's collection of surrealist and contemporary art, the results of which we now see all around us. To achieve only one-tenth of this would be remarkable enough for any single individual. But Eduardo was a man of prodigious energy, who believed that anything in art and life was possible, given the will to achieve it. Nevertheless, less than half of this would have been possible had Eduardo followed the conventional route by always issuing his art through the conventional channels of the art world. Had he followed the conventional commercial route, there would have been: no doors for Glasgow University; no bronze figures for the Royal Scottish Museum; and certainly no gift of the kind he was finally able to make to the Dean Gallery. Only perhaps Sir Angus Grossart, representing the Royal Bank of Scotland, could have been persuaded to pay the full commercial rate for the great sculpture he then commissioned for the Gyle. Of the periods of short duration when Eduardo did have a dealer, his time was taken up, like Whistler before him, with endless disputes about royalties, percentages and the like. To an artist friend, asking advice, he wrote in 1983:
I am undoubtedly the wrong person to advise about London galleries. As you know, I made the decision a number of years ago to work outside the gallery system. I find one loses contact with work, clients, prices, if a gallery handles sales. I also resent giving 50% to a dealer. Being camera-shy, and rather stranger-shy, I also tend to avoid exhibition openings as well.
This expressed reticence is wholly characteristic and a true, and accurate reflection of his personality. It is one of the factors that made Eduardo first and foremost an 'artist's artist'. It also reflects his gregarious nature and the need to mix art and life, which the calculated distancing of the commercial world would have denied him. Eduardo's generosity was also prompted by the interest he took in the ritual of the gift as practised by so-called under-developed societies; in contrast with the economic profligacy and technological complexity of our own. Why, if so much could be achieved with so little, based on 'free' exchange, were Western capitalist societies so uncreative and hell-bent on self-destruction. These questions exercised him greatly. They lay behind the exhibition 'Lost Magic Kingdoms', which he created with Professor Malcolm McLeod in 1985; and provided a rationale for his own omnivorous collecting habits, which were central to his creative process. Above all, Eduardo's generosity and celebration of his 'gift', with the creative freedom it allowed him, was targeted at a greedy art world predicated overwhelmingly on the reductive and destructive assumption that the intrinsic value of art is directly related to its market value; an equation that all great artists, from Marcel Duchamp onwards, have done everything in their power to subvert and overturn.

Eduardo was a formidable art worker who lived his life through his art and his art through his life. He would have liked, I am sure, to have seen his art have a greater effect on society than it did. But he accepted philosophically that the art world was effectively controlled by big business and he was ultimately content to have his art improve society rather than transform it. His 1971 exhibition at the Tate Gallery was the most articulate and trenchant protest against the Vietnam War ever made by any artist, American or European; but for reasons not hard to imagine it has been totally expunged from the record of art history.

There are as many sides to Eduardo's art as there were aspects of his complex personality. For this reason, his legacy is likely to be accordingly rich and various. This art is susceptible to multiple interpretations and, because he operated across such a broad spectrum of media and expressions, it will have different things to say from one generation to the next. It is more likely to be rediscovered afresh, not by 'art experts' or curators, but by those who come upon it for the first time, bringing only their own experience of the world rather than any specialist knowledge of art. For art does not speak for itself. Posterity has found very little to say. This will never be Eduardo's problem.

I should like to end on a personal note. I believe anyone wanting to understand more about Eduardo's art has first to come to an understanding of the circumstances in which he grew up, here in Edinburgh. Not only did the journey of his life begin here, which he translated into a lifetime of art, but he recognised this with the Gift of his work made towards the end of his life. That is why, while we all mourn his passing, there is a real sense from what he left behind that his new journey has only just begun.

Robin Spencer

1. Paolozzi E, Spencer R (ed). Eduardo Paolozzi: Writings and Interviews. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

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