Essay by Valerie Fletcher

Like Bernard Meadows, Edward Paolozzi was deeply affected by the politics and realities of World War II. Earlier, he had studied at the Slade School of Art and was much impressed by the ideas of surrealism. He worked primarily in collage—a favorite of Dada and surrealist artists because disparate images could be juxtaposed to provoke an intellectual or psychological reaction.

Shortly after the war, Paolozzi made a series of collages combining pictures of classical sculptures with images of modern machines, as an expression of the turmoil caused by the old European order colliding with the new technological world. Paolozzi was profoundly impressed by this idea as presented by the American historian Lewis Mumford in his books Technics and Civilization (1934) and The Condition of Man (1944).

Figure, 1957

During the mid-1950s, Paolozzi created a series of figure sculptures representing a standing human as a conglomeration of mechanical parts. Applying the methodology of collage to sculpture, he gathered old machine parts and cast-off technology components, which he pressed into slabs of wax. After casting them into bronze, Paolozzi welded the pieces together into semiabstract figures.

These sculptures relate to the emergence of cybernetics in the arts, literature, philosophy, and science. The idea of automata (humanlike machines) had appeared in science fiction, in tandem with the increasing use of machines during the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century. Cybernetics and the possibility of actual robots came to public awareness after World War II, when the scientist Norbert Wiener published Cybernetics (1948). This account of efforts to merge electronics with human capabilities made the robots of science fiction seem feasible.

In stories by Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and others, and especially in movies, robots were usually viewed as ominous: anthropomorphic yet inhuman, intelligent yet soulless, threatening and uncontrollable, a threat to human supremacy. Only rarely were they portrayed as a sympathetic machine seeking to become more human. Today’s computer-dominated society may consider the robots of popular culture in the 1950s and 1960s as naïve and camp, but those years were pervaded by the fears and anxieties of the Cold War with its ever-present possibility of nuclear annihilation.

Paolozzi’s robotoid sculptures have irregular contours and seemingly ravaged surfaces. They appear damaged, as if survivors of a holocaust. Figure lacks both arms and head, and its clumsy legs and feet appear heavy and difficult to move. The suggestion of a small step forward may be an ironic art historical allusion to the damaged anatomy of Auguste Rodin’s Walking Man of 1899–1905 and Alberto Giacometti’s Walking Man sculptures of 1946–48.

Valerie Fletcher is Senior Curator at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC. Her research on groundbreaking aspects of international, globalized, and transnational art have resulted in numerous exhibitions and publications.