Some years ago I was commissioned by the Royal Academy magazine to write ‘a feminist appraisal’ of Allen Jones’ work. As an RA, Jones had the privilege of reading the piece before it went to press. Although he’s referred to himself as a feminist on a number of occasions he seemed uncomfortable with this perspective. He vetoed the article and it was never published. I decided, therefore, to take the opportunity to revisit the work of this 77 year old pop artist to see if my response was any different a number of years on.
As I walked through the Royal Academy I remembered how the Viennese painter, Oscar Kokoschka, returned from the First World War to find that his lover Alma Mahler had married the founder of the Bauhaus school, Walter Gropius. To deal with his unrequited passion Kokoschka ordered the doll-maker Hermine Moos to make an exact, life-size replica of his ex. When the mannequin finally arrived, Kokoschka was horrified to find that, far from being life-like, it had furry limbs. Yet despite the doll’s hirsute appearance they made trips to the opera, took long carriage rides and, it was said, had intimate rendezvous. Eventually Kokoschka threw a champagne party and afterwards wrote: “When dawn broke – I was quite drunk, as was everyone else – I beheaded it out in the garden and broke a bottle of red wine over its head.”
In 1939 Salvador Dali was commissioned to create a display window for New York’s fashionable department store, Bonwit Teller. A claw-footed bathtub was lined with Persian lambskin and filled with narcissi floating in muddy water. Arms from disembodied white mannequins reached from the bath. Each held a hand mirror, tilted to reflect a turn-of-the-century wax mannequin with a doll-like features, about to step into the bath. Chicken feathers were glued to her naked body and her cheeks covered in blood stained tears. Her long blonde hair was crawling with artificial bugs. Shoppers were aghast. By noon the scandalous mannequin had been removed and Dali had pushed the bath tub through the plate glass window onto Fifth Avenue.
The word ‘fetish’ comes from the Portuguese. A term given to heretical talismans in the Middle Ages. Historically the artists’ mannequin, far from being an inconspicuous studio tool such as the easel or palette became, in the early 20th century, a fetishised object, eventually, becoming a work of art in its own right. Erotomania (another term for fetishism) has clinically been described as the behaviour of individuals who suffer extreme erotic fixations.
Alan Jones is part of a male generation for whom women were ‘chicks’, ‘birds’ and ‘bunny girls’. Like their animal counterparts these young women were seen as fair game. Sex was considered by many males as sport and a form of conquest. To speak of the 1960s as a sexual revolution is to misunderstand those times. A liberating period for men, women who slept around were described as ‘easy lays’ or ‘slags’. And, in those pre-pill days, were very likely to be left holding the baby.
It is pretty well impossible to read Alan Jones’ Hat Stand,1969 as anything other than a fetishist object. An expressionless mannequin holds up her hands to take, presumably, her male clients’ hats. Her purple bolero is pulled tight over conical tits. She wears a dog-collar, a G-string, and tightly-laced, thigh-high boots. Her coiffed hair is blonde and immaculate.There’s nothing satirical here. This is woman as object. Her role is to serve. She is a hat stand. Elsewhere three pairs of crossed legs in tightly laced thigh boots poke through a wall, along with a right arm in a glove. These are entitled Secretary. The message, here, is that these women are subservient, compliant and sexually available. There is no head, therefore no brain. No body, therefore no heart.
Jones’ 1969 Chair and Table attracted a good deal of feminist ire when they appeared. The female figures are trussed and bound. The figure in Chair lies supine, her legs in the air. She wears long black boots, black gloves and little black leather pants. A seat is strapped to her thighs so that she’s contorted into a position of constant availability: a chair in more than one sense of the word. Table kneels on all fours on a white fleece rug. A sheet of glass is secured to her back to form the table top. She is staring down into a small hand mirror. I was reminded of Meret Oppenheim’s fur tea cup. But no irony or social critique is intended here. These pieces are what they always were: fetishistic objects fashioned for the male gaze. What’s interesting is that while I was walking around the exhibition I noticed how insouciant contemporary viewers appeared to be. There seemed little outrage. Most smiled indulgently. Whether this is due to post-feminist fatigue or sophisticated ennui, it’s hard to say.
A Model Model, made as recently as 2013, depicts a woman with both her arms and legs encased in a sheath dress like a mermaid’s skin. While the hard sparkly gold Body Armour that entraps Kate Moss offers more of the same. In an era of ubiquitous cosmetic surgery these bland depictions of women, without any trace of expression, personality or imperfection are little more than soft porn. Barbie dolls for grown men
It is unfortunate that the publicity surrounding these one dimensional works has obscured the fact that Allen Jones is a rather good painter, a fine colourist and a skilled draftsman. The most interesting works are also the most ambiguous such as Interesting Journey, 1962 and Thinking About Women, 1961-2, with its areas of flat red and brown paint and fluid, semi-abstract patches of colour. Male, Female Diptych 1965 explores the territory of sexual duality. The lips, bras, green stilettos, male shoes and a Fedora seem to belong neither exclusively to the male nor female figure. There is a strong sense of colour, design and movement in these 60s paintings. At the time when British painting was full of sludgy khakis and browns they must have seemed vital, daring and fresh. The world is presented as a stage. Dance is a continual reference. The canvas becomes an arena of performance full of hedonism, energy and colour. There is a nod to Picasso with the plethora of acrobats and dancers. The early ambiguous paintings are the most interesting. Later,when the colour becomes flatter and more sugary, the images of women just props as with the golden body of the girl in Levitation, 2000, they become more predictable.
Among the most vital work are Jones’s sculptural cut outs. Red Ballerina, 1982 has all the well observed movement of a Degas balletic figure. What a pity that the sensitivity shown here is later reduced in the red figure of Stand In and the horrible yellow, blue and pink fibre glass mannequin that is Waiting on Table to sexual cliché and stereotype. Jones might have been celebrated as a significant British painter of his generation. But his fatal flaw has been, not so much the manner in which he depicts women, but that he has never questioned this approach and cannot see why it gives offence.
Allen Jones RA, Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington Gardens, London W1S 3ET.
Interesting Journey, 1962. Oil on canvas, 61 x 51cm. LONDON, PRIVATE COLLECTION. © Allen Jones. Photo: Private Collection
Stand In, 1991/2. Oil on plywood and fibreglass, 185 x 185 x 63 cm. Banbury, Private Collection. Image courtesy of the artist. © Allen Jones
Hat Stand, 1969. Mixed media, 191 x 108 x 40 cm. Private collection, London. Image courtesy the artist. © Allen Jones
First Step, 1966.Oil on canvas, 92 x 92 cm. LONDON, COLLECTION ALLEN JONES. © Allen Jones. Image courtesy of the artist