Tate Modern hosted the first retrospective of Richard Hamilton, this year. It is closing today and to mark the occasion I will attempt a brief summary of our visit, leafing through the exhibition guide and some (mental) notes.
Richard Hamilton is without a doubt one of the most important British artists of the 20th century with a long career spanning from the late 1940s to 2011, during which he moved from one style or subject to another. Hamilton shifted easily between painting, design, photography and television. His art is innovative, experimental, with a genuine interest in society, its troubles, politics, mechanisms and superficiality. His works were displayed over 18 rooms.
Described as ”the foremost champion of Marcel Duchamp in post-war Britain”, Hamilton admired the pioneer of ”readymade” art deeply, ever since he first came across The ‘‘Green Box”, [Duchamp’s facsimile reproductions of his handwritten notes for ”The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even”], in 1948. Duchamp’s influence is evident in Hamilton’s art but, far from just incorporating in his work, he elevated it by taking it one step further – for there is nothing ”readymade” about Hamilton’s work.
The exhibition was arranged chronologically, starting with his earliest period 1949-1951 and the etchings ”Variations on the theme of Reaper”. Hamilton often produced several versions of his works and always explored new printmaking methods and later digital techniques. His ”Reaper’‘ series is diagrammatic, abstract, in borderline with Surrealism.
Organic matter was the subject matter of paintings and studies in 1950. The crossing lines in ”Chromatic spiral” spring from the centre of the canvas with one more line/colour added to each bundle. The pattern becomes increasingly complex.
Hamilton was preoccupied with movement. In 1953 he took a job in Newcastle while still living in London. The daily train commute, inspired the series of paintings ”Trainsition” – a pun with ”train sit I on”. When Hamilton looked out of the window and focused on the middle distance, he realised that faraway objects seemed to move in the same direction as the train, whereas nearby objects appeared to move in the opposite direction. He used lines, dots and arrows to describe the phenomenon.
In 1956, Hamilton created the catalogue for an exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, called ‘‘This is Tomorrow”.
For this catalogue, he produced a collage that is today accepted as the first Pop art work: ”Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?”
Reproduced digitally in 1992:
He went on to list the ”characteristics of Pop Art”, effectively inventing the term, in a letter to architects Peter and Alison Smithson, in 1957:
Pop Art is:
Popular (designed for a mass audience)
Transient (short-term solution)
Expendable (easily forgotten)
Young (aimed at youth)
Since his famous collage, Hamilton picked up an interest in Interiors. In 1964, he found a still from the film ”Shockproof” (1949) in which the actress Patricia Knight stands over the body of a man she has just shot. That inspired a series of collages including ‘‘Interiors”:
Figures populated Hamilton’s paintings in the 1960s. A clear inclination towards more ‘‘political” than ”pop” is expressed in paintings such as the ”Portrait of Hugh Gaitskell as a Famous Monster of Filmland”. Hugh Gaitskell was leader of the Labour Party and opposed the campaign for unilateral nuclear disarmament.
Another room was devoted to ”Design-Architecture-Products, 1964-79”. Hamilton’s fascination with the design for consumer products and, in particular, with those of the German electrical company Braun, brought about a series of works based on those products. Beginning with an enlarged readymade image of a toaster, a series of works, studies and prints followed, for which Hamilton used a reflective foil on the visible side of the toaster, so the image of the viewer/consumer would be reflected against it. He re-branded the product ”Hamilton”.
Around the same time, the iconic exterior of the Guggenheim Museum was the subject of a series of reliefs:
But most visitors were more amused with his witty spoof TV commercial ‘‘The critic laughs” which showed a set of dentures mounted on an electric toothbrush. It was filmed as part of the 7th episode of Robert Hughes’s 1980 documentary television series, The Shock of the New. You can watch the commercial on Box Vox.
Hamilton was affected by troubling events of his time. The series of paintings ”Swingeing London” were based on photographs of Mick Jagger handcuffed to Hamilton’s gallery owner, Robert Fraser, after their arrest for drugs in 1967. Hamilton was appalled by the recommended ”swingeing sentence” by a judge: Jagger was sentenced to three months in prison for possessing amphetamines, Fraser to six months for heroin.
One of the lessons Hamilton learned from Marcel Duchamp was to adopt ”a stratagem of dichotomy’‘ – dramatic shifts of subject and style between series. His ”scatological period” that followed was one such deliberate shift at the end of the 1960s. While spending August in Cadaqués in Catalonia, Hamilton discovered a collection of postcards from the village of Miers in south-west France showing people relieving themselves after drinking Eaux de Miers, a local laxative.
That somehow sprang to mind a little later in another room, where Hamilton’s ‘‘The citizen” was showcased. Based on stills from a 1980 news report about the IRA ”dirty protest” when, denied the status of political prisoners, inmates in Long Kesh decided to wear only prison blankets and ”decorate” their cell walls with their excrement. Later, there were hunger strikes. Hamilton was disturbed by the ”materialisation of Christian martyrdom so profoundly contained on film”.
In 1984, Hamilton created an installation for an Arts Council group exhibition titled ‘‘Four Rooms”. We managed to sneak two photos past the attendant: one was the ”Treatment Room”. Thatcher on the screen is silent. Hamilton recognised that ”the power of the broadcast is as much in the image of Conservatism as in her actual words”.
He worked on his painting ”Lobby” based on a postcard he had from a Berlin hotel. This is the second sneaked photo:
Hamilton had bought a Polaroid camera and asked friends and artists to photograph him. Finally he had enough to cover the walls of a room. But Hamilton himself was most intrigued by Francis Bacon’s polaroid because the blurs and lighting recalled Bacon’s paintings. Hamilton asked Bacon to paint some marks on it, but when this did not happen, he tried to learn to paint with Bacon’s technique – which led to the series ”Portrait of the artist by Francis Bacon”. To be honest, I found this one of his less successful series.
For Hamilton, angels are ”pure spirits without substance or gender”, but, as he explained ”since pure spirits without substance are difficult to configure, the female form is my preferred option”.
In 2010, Hamilton was invited to contribute a painting to an exhibition about Balzac’s novella ”The unknown Masterpiece’‘, whose protagonist attempts to paint a perfect nude but instead produces an illegible ”dead wall of paint”. Hamilton conceived an image in which three figures – Titian, Poussin and Courbet – stand over a reclining nude. This is his last work, completed on 9th September 2011. He died four days later.
Tate Modern, 13 February – 26 May 2014
Images courtesy of the Tate and WikiArt.
Exhibition viewed on 25 March 2014