Nuclear Art in the Swinging Sixties

When Colin Self began his studies at London’s Slade School of Fine Art in 1961, Britain and the wider world were in the midst of a terrifying year. The ever-present threat of nuclear war reached a crisis point in the aftermath of the disastrous Bay of Pigs Invasion, while Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering space flight in April and the installation of the Berlin Wall in August signalled a dramatic shift in East-West relations. The prevailing sense of unease would seep into the young artist’s work at the height of the Swinging Sixties.

Colin Self’s visit to the United States in 1962, the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and again in 1965, inspired a series of disturbing works on the theme of the nuclear threat. Adopting Pop Art principles, Self blended everyday materials and consumer imagery to create works with a sense of menace that subverted the comfortable or desirable associations of their components. In those early days, recurring motifs in Self’s drawings, paintings, prints and sculptures included the fall-out shelter and the nuclear bomber.

In the second of his series of ‘Leopardskin Nuclear Bombers’ in 1963, Self fused the image of a predatory animal, a warplane, and a phallic object, as a biting critique of the machismo and primal aggression that was pushing the world to the brink of annihilation. Self’s attendance at CND (Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament) marches also resonated in his work. In 1966, Self made Nuclear Victim (Beach Girl), a shop mannequin covered in cinders and black paint that gave a spine-tingling glimpse of the outcome of a nuclear bomb. This image of burnt flesh and disfigurement continues to evoke a visceral response in viewers.

Suspicious of the commercial art world, Self increasingly isolated himself during the late 1960s and 1970s. Returning from London to his native Norwich, Self focused on more conventional Pop Art works and traditional landscapes and still lifes. However, ominous images of destructive forces have continued to creep into Self’s art, particularly in the aftermath of his visit to the rapidly disintegrating Soviet Union in the mid-1980s.

In 2008, Self was celebrated in a retrospective exhibition at Pallant House in Chichester. The catalogue Colin Self: Art in the Nuclear Age gives a deeper insight into the artist’s work.

Images: Colin Self, Leopardskin Nuclear Bomber No. 2, 1963. Wood, aluminium, steel and fabric, 95 x 800 x 420 mm, 2 kg. Courtesy Tate; Colin Self, Nuclear Victim (Beach Girl), 1966. Mixed media, 28 x 170 x 58 cm. Courtesy Imperial War Museum.

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