Pauline Boty: A Portrait | Gazelli Art House

The list of renowned artists who have also been raving physical beauties themselves is short. Raphael, maybe. Fantin-Latour, probably, if you take his self portraits for truth. Famous and beautiful female artists? The list is even shorter: such women move through life with many massive advantages, but having their work taken seriously isn’t one of them.

That’s been the fate of the original and talented British Pop artist Pauline Boty, who died in 1966, aged 28, in almost unbelievably tragic circumstances. Her paintings and collages quickly fell into obscurity, thanks in large part to the sexism of the Swinging Sixties milieu she worked in. Her side gig as an actress left her more lasting fame, at least to start with, and left no room for her art.

There are some clips of Boty the actress in action, including her cameo in 1966’s Alfie, that are featured as part of this new exhibition at Gazelli Art House. She’s stunningly blonde, a dream freewheeling “dolly bird”; it’s a testament to her artistic talent, though, that you leave the gallery thinking of the paintings and collages that are also on show.

Pauline Boty ‘Monica Vitti with Heart’ (1963)

Monica Vitti with Heart, from 1963, is a great example. Like other Pop artists, Boty was interested in re-synthesising mass media images into individual art objects. But she steers well clear of the sterile coldness of so much of the reproductions in the movement: her portrait of Vitti is, quite clearly, all heart.

The Italian actress’ face, making bold eye contact, head held slightly back, is encased in a big red painted heart. Boty must have based it on a film poster or newspaper image. A strip of pattern lies on top: it could be butterflies, it could be some more hearts. It’s entirely feminine. So far from the butch Pop nihilism of Warhol’s Coke bottles or, close to home, the racing cars of Gerald Laing.

That femininity, combined with her blonde beauty, doomed Boty to posthumous obscurity. You can see the seeds of her doom in a magazine interview, viewable at the Gazelli exhibition in a vitrine.

“Do you ever resent the time you spend on looking nice?” is one of the first questions put to the artist. “I just like to wear sloppy things and occasionally be delicious and very feminine, but not half as much as one is supposed to be,” she responds, I think wearily. “[Men] just find it embarrassing when you start talking.”

The article’s title? “Living Doll.”

Pauline Boty: A Portrait is at Gazelli Art House (London). 01 December 2023 - 24 February 2024