Picasso explored the etchings of Rembrandt, while Warhol deftly repurposed the devotional imagery of Leonardo da Vinci; for centuries, artists have confronted the art of centuries past, engaging in and contributing to a timeless dialogue with their art historical forbearers. Achieving an exceptionally superb continuation of this venerated custom, Still Life with Head in Landscape articulates the tenets and tropes of innumerable art historical masterworks with unparalleled pictorial exuberance and graphic charge. In its title alone, the present work suggests a blurring of the traditional genre distinctions between landscape, still life, and portraiture; deftly combining the three, Still Life with Head in Landscape is a work of virtually incomparable intricacy. While Lichtenstein considered Surrealism to be the specific aesthetic departure for this series, the present work merges sly references to a diverse range of artists, periods, and masterpieces. Asked to describe his inspiration for the Surrealist paintings, Lichtenstein reflected, “They were of no particular Surrealist artist, just Surrealism in general…These works are something like the Artist’s Studio paintings in that they are large compositions that include various images from various periods.” (Roy Lichtenstein, “A Review of My Work Since 1961,” 1995, quoted in Exh. Cat., Milan, Roy Lichtenstein: Meditations on Art, 2010, p. 235)
In the present work, the dramatically foreshortened space between Lichtenstein’s sumptuous blonde, intimately leaning into the viewer’s space, and the near horizon bisecting the composition recalls the destabilization of space in the metaphysical landscapes of Salvador Dali and Giorgio de Chirico, whose hyper-real scenes aimed to conjure the uncanny environment of a dream; in contrast, the sinuously organic curves of the cooing blonde offer sly reference to the fantastical aesthetic of Max Ernst, imbuing her with an underlying sensuality. Below the horizon, a crisp blue swath of Lichtenstein’s trademark Ben-Day spots echoes the sweeping beaches and rugged cliffs of the Catalan coastline portrayed in many of Dali’s best known paintings. As in those works, the unfamiliar space of Still Life with Head in Landscape confounds traditional expectations of the landscape genre, paying homage to Dali’s exploration of psychological topography, rather than of the tangible realm. In the foreground, the combination of objects within Lichtenstein’s still life – the precise yellow pyramid, partially concealed crescent moon, and gleaming red apple, amongst others – recalls the seemingly incongruous combinations of Dali’s so-called “symbolically functioning objects;” unlike his Surrealist predecessors, whose painstakingly selected forms reference internal forces of the psyche, the crisp forms of Lichtenstein’s still life are chosen precisely for their frequent usage in other paintings, both from the Surrealists and within Lichtenstein’s own oeuvre. Describing the remarkable skill with which Lichtenstein seamlessly absorbs, adapts, and rearranges such disparate inferences within his Surrealist paintings, scholar Jack Cowart notes: “Lichtenstein, rather, takes stylistic and subject elements and modifies them into a kind of Surrealist slang. He becomes involved in composite-scale tableaux with a rich dialogue of forms—all intuitively modified and released from their nominal sources. The forms assume new roles…In his shallow pictorial space, Lichtenstein’s inanimate forms become animate with sharp sources of light and shadow, and each painting becomes a tableau vivant.” (Jack Cowart, “Surrealism, 1977-79,” in Exh. Cat., St. Louis Art Museum, Roy Lichtenstein: 1970-1980, 1981, p. 109) The gleaming red apple evokes the green apple suspended in René Magritte’s infamous self-portrait, The Son of Man, while the bright reflection echoes that same artist’s frequent portrayal of bewilderingly non-perspectival windows. The gaunt tree, one branch topped by a lone leaf, recalls the bare tree of Salvador Dalí’s masterpiece, The Persistence of Memory, while the neatly delineated pyramid conjures such de Chirico works as Hermes’ Meditation and The Nostalgia of the Infinite. Eloquently summarizing Lichtenstein’s ingenious engagement with his Surrealist predecessors, scholar Diane Waldman reflects: “[Lichtenstein’s] Surrealist-style works give us Surrealism pared down to its essential vocabulary and enhanced by his own visual commentary. While they do not share Surrealism’s fundamental premise—that a language of art could be shaped from the unconscious—they have captured much of its style, a large measure of its wit, and not a little bit of its pathos.” (Diane Waldman, “Futurism, Surrealism, and German Expressionism, 1974-80” in Exh. Cat., New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Roy Lichtenstein, 1993, pp. 241-243)
Breathtaking in the scope of its referential vernacular, Still Life with Head in Landscape aligns numerous elements from Lichtenstein’s own oeuvre alongside this rich compendium of art historical inferences, culminating in a captivating homage to art of the past. Reintroduced in the mysterious realm of Surrealism, familiar elements from Lichtenstein’s earlier masterworks suggest new, intriguingly opaque meanings; Cowart notes, “One can identify sources and colors or document the compositional reuse, but one still wonders about the implications and the artist’s private intentions…Included are vestiges of his Pop comic works, Brushstrokes, temples, Pyramids, Mirrors, Entablatures, Landscapes, Trompe l’Oeils, Office Still Lifes, and Abstractions, and minor references to yet other works. Having developed style, technical expertise, and malleability in the intended rendering and communication between 1970 and 1977, Lichtenstein now combines all these skills in a virtuosic display.” (Jack Cowart, “Surrealism, 1977-79,” in Exh. Cat., St. Louis Art Museum, Roy Lichtenstein: 1970-1980, 1981, p. 111) Although rendered through the kaleidoscopic prism of Surrealism, the buttery yellow tresses of Lichtenstein’s signature blonde invoke the familiar bombshells of his Pop masterworks of the 1960s: departing from her role as the heroine of fictional and comic narrative, here, the artist’s archetypal female undergoes a radical stylistic transformation, emerging anew, entirely reimagined, in the fantastical dreamscape before us. Her obscured speech bubble temptingly evokes her lineage from the comic –based bombshells of Lichtenstein’s earlier paintings; in true Surrealist form, however, the cropped word tauntingly eludes legibility, lingering just beyond the viewer’s reach like a dream, only half remembered in the light of day. In her flowing locks of yellow hair, the shadows of Lichtenstein’s iconic Brushstroke paintings appear, winding sinuously alongside the figure’s face. Likewise, while the yellow pyramid and shining apple are immediately familiar from such earlier works as Pyramids II and III, 1969 or Two Apples, 1972, in addition to a number of works from the artist’s Still Life paintings of the mid 1970s, they acquire further shades of meaning from their Surrealist alter-egos, offering the viewer an intimate engagement with both art historical precedent and Lichtenstein’s own artistic past. The myriad diversity of external references is counter-balanced by the highly personalized treatment of his own oeuvre in the present work, as the artist draws on the forms of figures from his iconic paintings with the same acerbic wit and artistic license that has always characterized his distinctive practice. Indeed, considering his relationship to art history, Lichtenstein commented, “All painters take a personal attitude toward painting. What makes each object in the work is that it is organized by that artist’s vision. The style and the content are also different from anyone else’s. They are unified by the point of view—mine. This is the big tradition of art.” (The artist cited in Calvin Tomkins, Roy Lichtenstein: Mural with Blue Brushstroke, New York, 1988, p. 42) Compounding inference upon inference in a spectacular and multifaceted fusion of artistic homage and wry, subtly satirical commentary, in Still Life with Head in Landscape Lichtenstein confronts art history as his subject matter with striking finesse, systemically fracturing and reimagining iconic paintings of the Twentieth Century to compose his own, utterly original masterwork.