The Jet Age Compendium: Eduardo Paolozzi and Ambit Magazine

There’s an excellent exhibition on at the moment at Raven Row, in London’s Spitalfields. It brings together selected works by Eduardo Paolozzi from the 50s through to the 70s.

Those who only know Paolozzi as a sculptor, and through his mosaics on the London Underground or his massive Newton for the British Library forecourt might not know of his strong political and graphic design interests. Alongside acid-coloured prints (some of the first British Pop Art) and the strange toys the artist scavenged from flea markets, the exhibition presents a selection of collaborations between Paolozzi and Ambit magazine in the late 60s and 70s (although the relationship continued into the 90s).

Ambit was founded in London in 1959 by paediatrician and novelist Martin Bax, and quickly attracted a following from many differing sections of the avant-garde, especially in poetry, with contributors including Jeff Nuttall, Edwin Brock, Peter Porter, George Macbeth and other radicals.

Perhaps the most interesting camp follower, however, was J.G. Ballard, riding the crest of The Drowned World (1962) and moving easily between Ambit‘s blend of art and avant-garde literature, and the harder edges of Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds. Both magazines published excerpts from what would become The Atrocity Exhibition.

Ballard had been an admirer of Paolozzi’s work since the early 50s, seeing in it a surrealism and obsession with the darker undercurrents of society that he was writing about, and recruited him to Ambit alongside his role as prose editor. His first contribution, Moonstrips Empire News appeared in Ambit #33 in 1967, but represented more than a decade of experimentation with text and image. Further contributions included a “novel”, Why We Are In Vietnam, consisting of cut-up newspaper reports on group murders and the economy, and Nippon Agency, a similar experiment with the Japanese press, the fruits of several months spent working in that country.

What Ballard saw in Paolozzi’s work is evident in his source materials: a highly political attack on the US and others’ foreign policies, seen as a direct result of the latent aggression in their societies, and revealed in advertising, classified ads, news reports and found photographs. It is the perfect complement to Ballard’s work exploring the same themes in literature.

One layout by Paolozzi juxtaposes images of sexual liberation with rocket boosters and carpet-bombed cities, another consists of drag queens, firing ranges, cowboy boots and Gallup polls on litereracy, drug use and attitudes to marriage. Others are more subtle: a portrait of Wittgenstein alongside variations of milk packaging might be a comment on the uses of language in mass persuasion, but the accompanying text – entitled Moonstrips – General Dynamics F.U.N. – breaks off its Wittgenstein commentary mid-flow to engage with Gregory Peck, the nonuniform radiation of energy, and an Oriental massacre scene.

On the back cover of Ambit #33 is a surreal advert for Ballard’s Inner Space, with a quote from the author:

Fiction is a branch of neurology: the scenarios of nerve and blood vessel are the written mythologies of memory and desire.

Also included in the endmatter are quotes from Paolozzi and Pound, both of which underpin the Ambit project:

A good reproduction is worth a thousand poor originals…
Eduardo Paolozzi

You must not only subsidize the man with work still in him, but you must gather such dynamic particles together, you must set them where they will interact and stimulate each other.
Ezra Pound 1912, New Age 11

The images shown here are taken from The Jet Age Compendium, the delightfully produced catalogue of the Raven Row exhibition. The reproduced cover of Ambit #50 (1972), above, “recalls those self-concious avant-garde group portraits taken by the Surrealists and the Futuists. It conveys the same sense of a gathering of kindred spirits united in some private joke or reverie.”* Standing on the right is Bax, with art editor Martin Foreman next to him, then the shining pate of Ballard, with Paolozzi just visible behind him, half-hidden by the voluminous attire of Euphoria Bliss, popular Ambit cover girl and performer at artistic events.

Full set of images on Flickr →

* This quote is taken from David Brittain’s Introduction to The Jet Age Compendium, published by Four Corners Books, from which this article draws much. You should buy it.

Posted September 25, 2009 by James Bridle. Comments Off on The Jet Age Compendium: Eduardo Paolozzi and Ambit Magazine
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