Eduardo Paolozzi merged surrealism with pop culture. His wacky pieces mashed machinery with madness, ideas and ideologues. Born and raised in the fallout of World War I - his work reflect the profound psychological issues raised by the darkest days in human history. All of his big ideas can be traced to his home - Leith.
Paolozzi once said that, "I suppose I am interested, above all, in investigating the golden ability of the artist to achieve a metamorphosis of quite ordinary things into something wonderful and extraordinary." His surroundings - the working-class Leith district of Edinburgh may have seemed ordinary, but it was in-fact a microcosm for interwar life and a fertile ground for creative and divergent thought. It was here that Paolozzi grew up.
We're all about progress now, although no one can seem to agree on what exactly that means. Every time we achieve something and we feel like we're moving forward - there's a report or an investigation that would unearth this latest advancement for what it is - some politicised ploy. Progress, now more than ever, is intricately tied to politics. The one who is seen to move the people forwards is the one who will be loved by them. Leith, and as a by-product Paolozzi, had an inherent distrust for such grandiose claims.
The dynamic of progress, and thus, of power, is murky. Paolozzi explored the subtle nuances of change through its consequences on society. Some of his works were light-hearted and soft. Others were infinitely more dark and melancholic. As power trickles down to the individual, we find that it has an unpredictable effect of personal identity. In exploring these issues with a heavy focus on pop-culture - Paolozzi managed to create transcendent art. It was once rooted in its time and place, yet has a universal message - the world is mad and no one seems to know what's going on.
Granted, he understood that control was a projection of our taught ideas on power, but it did still exist and it was yielded to catastrophic consequence. One place that he was able to reconcile his ideas on the proliferation of power and its impact on society was through advertising - particularly of the American persuasion.
By utilising the glossy images that were made to look cool and sexy in a way that was neither cool nor sexy, he could decontextualise them and decode them in a way that they themselves would spell out their own hypocrisy and bullshit. He had a knack for knowing what was being packaged and sold to him as a good idea and what was simply not.
He grew up an Italian immigrant and a child of ice-cream parlour owners. Leith is the traditionally working-class part of Edinburgh, a port that was once the bustling epicentre of heavy industry. Thanks in large part to its geographical location, it has always been a hotbed for the darker side of life. Ports meant prostitutes and dangerous drinking dens - it meant fights, sleaze and access to anything else you might need.
Low property prices and proximity to the access-point of the port also meant it was the home to immigrants looking to carve out a life in a new society. Both worlds coalesced into an environment that perpetually swung like a pendulum from hotbed of culture to seedy underbelly. Leith still has a similar atmosphere and for the young Italian kid - it clearly shaped his surreal, yet intricate worldview.
Firstly, advertising offered an easy sense of escapism for someone living in more downtrodden parts. Being surrounded by dealers, scammers and con-men also meant that he could see through the lipstick and bright-lights - it made him a lover of big ideas, of smashing cultures together and of imagining how the world could be.
Often portraying partly mechanical people both as sculpture and collage, he could imagine the replacement of workforces by robots. Leith, whilst once buzzing, was in a stage of rebuilding when Paolozzi moved there. The heavy industries had either been shut down or were soon to be. He saw men and women drink themselves into a stupor, feeling unwanted and unneeded. Surplus to the government's requirements.
Later life would see Paolozzi study and work in London and Paris - the creative hubs of the world. His early experiences of childhood and his teenage years in Leith would always recur in his works though, whether through his fascination with industry or his exploration into the way people interacted with popular cultural artefacts.
His artistic identity was hard to define. He was vividly creative and tirelessly productive. As a result, his image as an artist suffered to a degree. Although widely attributed as being one of pop-arts founding fathers, his artistic imprint was perhaps less substantial that it might have been had he focussed more.
In Leith though, his name is well recognised and respected. Although gentrification has hit the northern part of Edinburgh, fostering a more homogenous culture - it still stands alone in many ways. Paolozzi's sculptures are proudly displayed at the point where Leith merges into Edinburgh city centre - where one culture becomes another and ideas and accents change. Paolozzi's output was illustrious and challenging. They were the results of big ideas held by a little boy in a very unique place.
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