The Richard Hamilton retrospective now on at Tate Modern is an opportunity to assess the achievement of this important British artist.
‘Just what is it that makes today’s home so different, so appealing?’ is Richard Hamilton’s most famous work. This small collage of cut out and pasted images from American Magazines of the period was a collaborative venture made for the catalogue of the exhibition ‘This is Tomorrow’ at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1956. The effect of this exhibition was to give a shift in direction in British Art away from the art movements of the period – the ‘Kitchen Sink School’, ‘Geometry of Fear’, Euston Road, and Constructivist Abstraction towards one with a more pop art sensibility. Indeed the word POP first appeared in the Hamilton’s Collage (on the muscleman’s lollypop stick) and he defined the term in a letter of 1957 as being – Popular, transient, expendable, low cost, mass produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous and Big Business.
His early training as a technical draughtsman combined with his time as a student at the Royal Academy and the Slade school of Art was to be important in his career, as was his time teaching on then new Basic Course at Newcastle upon Tyne. Influenced by the teaching at the Bauhaus, this experimental Foundation Course was to become standard educational practice in art schools throughout the country. He helped organise exhibitions at the ICA as well as teaching at the Royal College of art where alongside Peter Blake he inspired the students who went on to develop the English Pop Art movement. He made contact in America with artists such as Roy Lichtenstein and he met and became an early advocate of the work of Marcel Duchamp.
For me, what the exhibition reveals is that Hamilton was at the peak of his creativity during the 1960’s and that paintings such as ‘Hommage à Chrysler Corp’, ‘Interior II’, ‘$he’ and ‘I’m dreaming of a black Christmas’ stand out as definitive examples of his work and they also tend to be the ones most frequently reproduced.
His friendship with Duchamp lead him to make a reproduction of the ‘Large Glass‘ for an exhibition of Duchamp’s work at the Tate Gallery in 1966 and here his technical drawing abilities were put into good use. It is one thing admiring the intellectual gymnastics of the master of conceptualism and another to try to emulate his achievements. Artists out of necessity want to develop their creativity but Hamilton’s 1970’s paintings ‘Shit and Flowers’ produced the weakest of his work and his modern history paintings about Iran and the Irish Troubles although resulting in a powerful painting such as ‘The Citizen‘ was not sustainable, the outcome being perhaps too close to propaganda. Instead he returned to his concern with the ‘Interior’ a theme with great art historical significance and used it in a contemporary way through installation. His interest in new materials and print making processes saw him creating cibachrome prints applied to canvas. His last work a triptych entitled ‘le chef d’oeuvre inconnu‘ based on a Balzac short story ‘The Unknown Masterpiece’ uses this method to create a computer generated homage on the theme of the reclining nude watched over by Photoshoped past masters of the genre – Poussin, Courbet and Titian . Whether or not this has been devised, as an enigmatic work in emulation of Duchamp is uncertain.
Time itself will deliver the final verdict on Hamilton’s complete oeuvre but his place in the history of development of Pop Art is secure.
Tutors Angela Rogers and Gerald Deslandes will lead a study visit on Saturady 17 May. Places are free to OCA students, to book please email firstname.lastname@example.org