Pop chemistry in 1968

Roy Lichtenstein

Pop is fun. Pop is joyful. Pop is familiar. But it's also in your face, opinionated and ironic. Pop strikes out the difference between 'high' and 'low' culture. Behind the simplistic lines lies a multiple layer of meaning. Lichtenstein appropriates forms and processes from popular culture and isn’t shy to criticize the established order of society.

“Study for Peace through Chemistry” is a straightforward drawing. No complicated perspectives and painting techniques, but strong, bold lines and stylized shapes with flattened blanks like a coloring page. Later versions will be filled in with primary colors and Ben Day dots. This drawing was followed in 1970 by the series “Peace through Chemistry”, which consists of four graphic works and a relief in bronze, as well as an oil painting.

Sharp contours divide the composition into a triptych. Ingeniously drawn lines make each panel tilt at an angle of 45° so our gaze stumbles from one part into the other, each depicting its own theme. The bright sun and leafy branch in the first panel represent the natural process of photosynthesis. Next, a stylized figure examines something under a microscope. Analysis leads to scientific insight and gears are set in motion. The result can be seen in the last panel, showing a smoking test tube. Each panel repeats the same forms and processes in an ever further advanced stylization. The leafy branch becomes a gear. Sun rays become smoke plumes. The evolution towards mechanization is taking place.

Roy Lichtenstein, "Study for Peace Through Chemistry" (1969) - oil on canvas (Portland Art Museum)

The comic strip-like drawing has a futuristic slant reminiscent of 1930s propaganda, distributed at the time to glorify industrialization and to promote a positive vision of the future. Lichtenstein’s meaning seems to be clear: “Peace through chemistry”, an educational message portraying the end of war by scientific progress. But how do we use our privilege of education and knowledge? To enable mass production of chemical weapons as a tool of achieving world peace. What a naive optimism! Lichtenstein kicks in the face of Western hubris, this in 1968, a time when the United States is divided by the Vietnam War.