Artists take inspiration from lots of different places and art comes in all kinds of shapes, sizes and styles. In the middle of the 20th century, an art movement called ‘Pop Art’ was inspired by how the world was changing after a long period of adversity.

What kind of adversity? – Ed.

In 1929 an economic crisis called The Great Depression began in the United States, and then spread across the globe. It was the worst economic downturn in the history of the industrialised world. The crisis meant that a lot of people lost their jobs. They couldn’t afford to buy ordinary everyday items, and they had very little to eat. The Great Depression lasted for 10 years and, just as it ended, World War II began.

During the war, food and ordinary objects were rationed by governments to make sure there was enough for everybody. People were given ration books to keep track of what they could have, and everyone had to make do with not having very much.

In 1945 the war finally ended. Rationing would continue for a few more years but slowly the post-war economies began to grow. The 1950s and 1960s were a time of enormous change for people who lived in Britain and the US. There was a rapid increase in the population -– people called this the ‘baby boom’. More houses were built for these new families to live in and the manufacturing industry also grew very quickly to meet everybody’s needs. More jobs were available, and people suddenly had more money to spend on luxury items that hadn’t been available just a few years before. 

The advent of consumerism

When a society buys and sells a lot of things, it’s called consumerism.

Finding new ways to sell things to these new consumers became big business. Advertising agencies created images that encouraged people to spend money on new things. By 1960 around six billion dollars had been spent on creating advertising in the US. 

Adverts appeared on television, in glossy magazines and in cinemas, encouraging people to buy the latest household appliances, the newest cars, the most up-to-date fashions and the most exciting soft drinks. People wanted to live like the glamorous actors they saw in adverts and in the movies. 

All of this advertising and consumer culture began to inspire artists to create work that was very different from what they saw in museums and galleries. They wanted to make art that reflected the changes they saw happening all around them. 

Unemployed men queue outside a soup kitchen opened in Chicago by Al Capone during The Great Depression. The storefront sign reads ‘Free soup, coffee and doughnuts for the unemployed’.
Unemployed men queue outside a soup kitchen opened in Chicago by Al Capone during The Great Depression. The storefront sign reads ‘Free soup, coffee and doughnuts for the unemployed’.

Art for all

The Pop Art movement began not in New York, but in London, with a group of artists that created works using images of US culture and advertising campaigns. Peter Blake, Eduardo Paolozzi, Pauline Boty and David Hockney all used the same techniques as the advertising gurus to make collages, prints and paintings. The term ‘Pop Art’ came to be widely used but there is disagreement about who used it first. Some say it was the art critic, Lawrence Alloway, others think it was the father of the artist John McHale. 

In 1957, the artist Richard Hamilton set out the characteristics of Pop Art in a letter. He used terms like ‘popular’, ‘low cost’, ‘mass produced’ ‘young’ and ‘glamorous’. 

The idea of using popular culture in art travelled to the United States where another group of artists began using it to create work of their own. American Pop Art is considered different from the style that developed in Britain. Instead of a view of American culture from the outside looking in, American Pop Artists made work from the perspective of people on the inside. They represented a world that was familiar to them. Their approach was much bolder and it focused more heavily on the mass production of everyday objects.

Whaam! by Roy Lichtenstein Location: Tate Modern

One of the most famous Pop Artists was named Andy Warhol. He made pictures of cans of soup and brightly coloured screen prints of celebrities. Roy Lichtenstein created images inspired by the look of comic book illustrations, and Jasper Johns’ most famous works used the American flag. 

Through the 1960s Pop Art continued to grow and its popularity quickly spread around the world. More and more people began to create work in this style. You may have seen some of these artworks or recognise the style of some of the art. When it first began, critics thought that Pop Art wasn’t serious enough. They thought that its subject matter was low-brow, cheap and uncultured. But this didn’t matter. Pop Art was made to be fun and for a wide audience. It was a movement that grew out of a particular period of time and reflected the way in which the world was changing. It challenged what art could be, made ordinary objects into something extraordinary, and was meant to be enjoyed by everyone. 

Corita Kent, love is hard work, 1985. It wasn’t just bohemian types that were involved in the Pop Art movement. Up until 1968 Corita Kent was a Catholic nun (true story) who created lots of important works of the period.

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Words: Frances Durkin. Illustration: Sophie Bryant-Funnell. Photos: Whaam! © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/
DACS 2018; Brillo boxes © 2018 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by DACS, London, photograph by Mario De Biasi/Mondadori Portfolio via
Getty images; love is hard work © Corita Art Center, photograph by Arthur Evans.