Pauline Boty: pop art’s only female icon laid bare

    Pauline Boty (1938-66) was many things — so many it’s difficult to see how she squeezed them all in. She was an actress, appearing with Michael Caine in Alfie, and in various plays on the BBC. She was a dancer, popping up regularly on the Sixties music show Ready Steady Go!. She modelled. She wrote poetry. She turned men’s heads. Somehow — impactfully, frustratingly — she also found time to be an artist.

    The frustration comes from not being able to see her artistic achievements clearly. Today she is celebrated as the only woman among Britain’s significant pop artists. And since her early death from cancer, aged just 28, she has acquired a legendary aura. But in such a short life there simply wasn’t time to stock the shelves generously. Her works are so rare they were overlooked in the early pop chronicles. Only in recent decades has she been added to the famous ranks of Hockney, Blake, Boshier and the Royal College swingers.

    It’s true as well that all those other pursuits she enjoyed have had a fraying impact on her artistic accomplishments. “How good was she really?” is a difficult question to answer. High marks, then, to the Gazelli Art House in London for having a go with a punchy little display filled lightly but intriguingly with a selection of surviving goodies.

    Not that “small” equals “clear” in this encapsulation. Boty wasn’t only varied in her professional pursuits, she was also a questing artist who tried many styles. Collage, abstraction, self-portraiture and stained glass join the adoring tributes to Marilyn Monroe and Jean-Paul Belmondo that constitute her signature pop style in a flurry of artistic directions.

    The earliest work is a teenage self-portrait painted in 1955. Big eyes, big lips, cute fringe — it’s a likeness that tries to fit in with the glum house mood of the 1950s but also manages to peep into the future and proclaim her film-star looks. Beautiful, blonde, pouty — almost parodically a Sixties dollybird — Boty became as much of an alluring icon as the ones she liked to paint. Separating the alluring image from the real achievements is the tricky task the show sets us.

    A documentary section filled with sexy newspaper clippings and front covers of Men Only makes the assessment harder. The camera loved her and she loved it back, posing nude on a chaise longue or whipping off her shirt in front of her painting of a woman whipping off her shirt. In a hilarious lifestyle interview David Frost chooses her as his ideal woman: “I’ve seen her on television a couple of times and she looks like a super bird to me.”

    Boty was clearly complicit in this paralleling of herself with her pop art subjects, but by including her earlier work the show manages successfully to hint at underlying doubts and awkwardnesses. A 1958 gouache of a girl on a beach — sad face, knees tucked — feels like a study of loneliness rather than a record of seaside pleasures. The surprising stained glass — it’s what she studied at the Royal College — has a mysterious female figure at the centre surrounded by looming stretches of Victorian architecture that feel as threatening as a Piranesi prison.

    Alerted by this early tiptoe into darkness, we arrive at the pop imagery for which she is celebrated with our antennae twitching. Lots of pop artists painted Monroe — they all did! — but only the beautiful Boty was in a position to mourn her subject from the inside as well as the outside. Her Marilyn, painted in 1962, is a posthumous farewell called Colour Her Gone in which the smiling star at the centre is surrounded by a ring of garden roses with tombstone moods. This is pop art with votive ambitions.

    Belmondo, meanwhile, gets the full on teenage-crush treatment in an ecstatic picturing in which the French dreamboat is surrounded by hovering hearts and another helping of red roses that seem, this time, to quiver with moist female desire.

    Once again she is putting pop art to unusual use: adding depth and emotion to its mix. There’s even time for her to grow thunderously political before her early death. It’s clearest in a 1963 painting called Cuba Si in which events in Cuba and the rise of Fidel Castro are celebrated noisily in a painting full of victorious flags and rousing peasants. Boty’s transformation from David Frost’s “super bird” to radical pop artist with unusual ambitions is complete.

    I have come late to Claudette Johnson at the Courtauld Gallery. Silly me. The exhibition finishes in a week, which leaves barely any time to visit this powerful and affecting event.

    Johnson emerged in the 1980s in a series of shows that put black women on Britain’s artistic map. From the start her speciality was big drawings that hovered uncertainly between portraiture and symbolism. The style was bold. The meaning was elusive. Although it seemed always to involve a search for black identity.

    In the 1990s she put art-making aside and concentrated instead on bringing up her family. Only recently has she returned to the fray — with show-stopping results.

    Her new work features a cast of smouldering black presences that manage somehow to feel simultaneously everyday and heroic. The faces, beautifully chosen and recorded with outrageous skill, belong to the street. But the moods they achieve in Johnson’s fabulous art belong somewhere profound and lasting in the annals of black experience.

    Pauline Boty: A Portrait, at Gazelli Art House, London W1, until Feb 24; Claudette Johnson: Presence, at the Courtauld Gallery, London WC2, until Jan 14