Richard Hamilton Shock and Awe The Late Works – Review

There is a famous story about Giotto, Cimabue, and a fly. Cimabue, the master, left Giotto alone in the studio one day for an unrecorded reason. Giotto painted a fly on one of Cimabue’s unfinished works. Cimabue came back, and spent an unknown amount of time trying to shoo the fly away before realising it was just a very realistic painting of a fly. Paint used to be the unacknowledged creator of semblance.

Now it is computers – and what we consider so lifelike now will seem primitive tosh compared to what is to come (in the same way that it is hard to believe now that Giotto, even, could paint a fly so well it would look lifelike). We are now of a time in which your own earnest critic cannot really remember a world before the internet. We assume that the perfectly feasible scenes magazines provide us have in fact been digitally manipulated. Photoshop is our new man, every image passes through it, and, like Giotto’s fly to Cimabue, the best work is done when we don’t notice it – the medium hides totally behind the image. The highest technical achievement in computer-made representational art is the total disappearance of any inkling that computer manipulation took place.

In Richard Hamilton’s book ‘Painting by Numbers’ he acknowledges this tension. He explains his motive for writing the book was that a collector saw one his ‘Late Works’ and commented that it was “just a photograph”. Hamilton’s answer was along the lines of “no it’s not: I manipulate it”. So, in ‘Painting by Numbers’, we get a detailed, step-by-step working through of his image-manipulation process to make work like ‘Hotel Du Rhône’ (2005), in which a photo of a hotel room is manipulated to conform to perfect 2 point perspective, and also to include a naked chambermaid cleaning it.

This is a very difficult show, made more difficult by Hamilton’s kind of teasing silence. He had his start in Pop, and there is still that playful element to him, but now backed by an incredible amount of coherent conceptual stuff. I’m going to admit it: he beat me, and I am in awe of him. I feel like he makes sense somewhere beyond me, but there is too much to fathom. The thick reference to Art History in the Annunciations, the monk’s cells of San Marco in Florence and the National Gallery itself (in ‘The Sainsbury wing’ (1999-2000)), the Richard Hamilton picture on the wall inside a picture by Richard Hamilton (in a gallery with Richard Hamilton work in – suggesting a kind of endless repeat, like looking into a mirror reflecting a mirror), the paintings done precisely to look like digital prints and, finally, ‘Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu’, a painting in 3 parts unfinished at his death, where all these elements combine.

The title is from a Balzac story. “‘The Unknown Masterpiece’ tells how a Parisian painter, Frenhofer, is persuaded to show two fellow artists, including the young Poussin, a painting of his mistress, which in Frenhofer’s mind has reached the perfection of representation.” The two young artists come eagerly to admire the painting, but all they can see is part of a foot that has been lost in a swirl of colours. Their disappointment drives Frenhofer to madness, he destroys the painting and kills himself.

Hamilton’s response is a work in three parts, all created in Photoshop: Hamilton’s original concept work, a preparatory drawing made by Photoshop filter, and a digital approximation of the finished work. The work puts three great painters: Titian, Poussin and Courbet – all of which painted celebrated self-portraits – “contemplating a reclining nude based on a French 19th-century photograph.”

First we have the process of the work in the work: the three stages. Then there is the Art History reference. Keeping Balzac in mind, we also seem to be faced with a certain accessibility issue. What relation does the woman have to this or any painting of a woman? Titian, Poussin and Courbet (in Hamilton’s version) are admiring her. But the collage’s dividing line might suggest they can’t see out of their own Photoshop layer in order to see the woman. Or is it a woman? Is it just a picture of a woman? Is that all they can see? A picture of a woman, not an actual woman? Can they not even see the picture? Actually, none of the male gazes seem to be looking at the woman at all: is the woman just an adornment to a male (Hamilton’s) painting, like it has been suggested that all female nudes fundamentally are?

Another question: what is “unknown” about the masterpiece, and who is doing the unknowing? Did Frenhofer fail? Succeed but only to himself? Realised he failed at the crucial moment? Is it the two younger artists for whom the masterpiece is unknown? Do two people see the same thing? Is “the masterpiece” unknown, and this is just a work towards it (or even totally irrelevant to it)? Is the woman “unknown”?

It isn’t so much that there is no “answer” to this work, but there are too many. Each possible variation in the answers to the questions above (and there are more possible), if configured into a kind of series or logic-order of yes/no questions, creates dozens of possible ‘solutions’ for Hamilton’s last work. Each answer to each question shifts the all other questions. It is complex in the best way: easily accessible but inexhaustible. “This is my Etant donnés,” Hamilton is reported as saying, referencing Duchamp’s last work. Hamilton, a fan of James Joyce, might have had Joyce in mind here: when the American writer Max Eastman asked Joyce why ‘Finnegans Wake’ was written in a very difficult style, Joyce replied: “To keep the critics busy for three hundred years.”

Not having three hundred years, I want to move to give a similar panegyric to his latest ‘Lobby’ version – a computer re-arranging of an earlier work (‘Lobby’, (1984)) of the same name and same subject. The latest ‘Lobby’ is mesmerising. It is of a hotel lobby, with mirrored pillars. In earlier versions, the lobby was inhabited. Here it is emptied of people, and organised around strict perspective, all framing a brightly coloured flower arrangement in the front-and-centre. One vanishing point is very far back, theoretically behind the picture; the other is outside the canvas, way off to the right. The dot pattern in the carpet, and the alignment of mirrors and walls, all point towards the flowers. The vanishing point that is in the picture also radiates outwards, at you, fanning out to all corners of the painting. This, coupled with the carpet pattern that really enforces it, makes the room in the painting seem to revolve around the central flowers as you walk by it. It is an incredibly odd feeling – the bright flowers give it something of a Magritte-style oddness.

(This engendered a short experiment of mine walking by pieces in the permanent collection to see what happened to the perspective. Some very odd results. ‘Queen Mariana of Spain in Mourning’ by Juan Bautista Martínez del Mazo (1666, room 30) looks utterly confusing when viewed from the far right of it because of your ability to see down a corridor in the background that your brain keeps trying to tell you shouldn’t be able to see down. The Rokeby Venus always looks back at you, and you don’t really notice until being to one side of her for a while that you shouldn’t be able to see her in the mirror, which for me only adds to her mystery).

Hamilton was working on this show when he died, in September 2011, and had a very careful hand in the curation of it. It is a mysterious, enticing show, from a man who had in his life felt “rejected” (as he said to Alastair Sooke) and had one eye on his reputation during its organisation. He consciously made important works here. According to Declan McGonagle:

“Hamilton’s key works seem to come regularly from a moment of recognition that something fundamental is happening or, more accurately, is being represented as happening and in that representation something mythic is being created, that is, with a power to resonate beyond the immediate circumstances of time or place.”

Richard Hamilton, ‘The Sainsbury wing’, 1999-2000. Private collection. © courtesy of the Estate of Richard Hamilton.

Here McGonagle is talking about Hamilton’s political art, where he “realised that here was conscious myth making taking place before his, and the world’s, eyes.” Work like ‘Treatment Room’ (1984) – a telescreen with a picture of Margaret Thatcher suspended above a bare hospital room – acknowledges this, and hopes to bring attention to the myth as a way into combatting it. But in these Late Works, where the aesthetic is out-and-out digital, this myth-overlaying-world becomes a common and unavoidable theme due to the recent ubiquity of computers – not just P.C.s, but smartphones, iPads and the like. We now carry hardware that provides very convincing illusions around with us. ‘The Saensbury wing’ (1999-2000) and ‘Portrait of woman as an artist’ (2007, clever title) graft women onto their surroundings and leave them floating there. They bring their illusion to the fore. Not quite Surrealism, not quite over-real, but more intent on upsetting or showing up an illusion, or revealing that something is being represented as happening, where the representation of that happening is more forceful to us than the happening itself. Hamilton doesn’t give us “naked woman walking through National Gallery”, but “naked woman walking through National Gallery: The Making Of.”

But modern myths reinvent themselves. Anti-Thatcher work belongs truly to the time of Thatcher, just as the huge anti-Bush merchandise industry collapsed as soon as he wasn’t president anymore. ‘Shock and Awe’ (2007-2008), where Tony Blair’s head appears on the body of a cowboy, got at the myth again but then he went. Now the problem with bringing up the entire aesthetic of computers and digital imagery as a form of illusion isn’t in the idea, it is in the speed and type of the illusion.

Hamilton’s Late Works on computer are being lauded as technical masterpieces. They are a mathematical/geometric masterpiece in the working out of perspective. Technically gifted? They don’t seem to be, they seem instead to wear their computer-generatedness like a slightly out-of-fashion hat (I’ll come back shortly to why this is a problem). We also get media like ‘oil on Fuji/Océ LightJet on canvas’, or ‘Epson inkjet on Hewlett-Packard RHesolution canvas’ which seems a little bit “manifesto”. If it matters who made the ink and the canvas then why is ‘oil on canvas’ fine? Why do we never get ‘Windsor & Newton Artist’s Oil Series on canvas I bought pre-stretched from a pal who was a bit strapped’?

Richard Hamilton, ‘Hotel Du Rhône’, 2005. Private collection. © courtesy of the Estate of Richard Hamilton

If we are going to go all the way and accept Photoshop, Epson inkjets and Hewlett-Packard RHesolution canvases into both Art and its long-time definer The National Gallery (and why not, after all), then you can’t award points just for the novelty of using these materials. You have to look at how good they are at using the medium, just as you would for any other artist at any time in any century in any other medium. Van Eyck did more than just be among the first to use oil paint; he also used them well. If we are going for this “whatever, man” approach to media then we should say that there are many people now that can handle Hamilton’s medium better than Hamilton, who probably won’t be considered for entry into Art History.

This is a horrible and unfair criticism to make. Computer graphics have made almost incomprehensibly quick progress in becoming life-like. They are also still improving. Any computer graphics look dated very quickly through no fault of the creators. After centuries we no longer consider Giotto a paragon of hyper-realism. Van Eyck similar. Both are solid stepping stones, but a long time has taken away their claim to hyper-realistic representation.

Computer graphics, on the other hand, can lose their lustre after months, which is down to their sharp-eyed audience and the literally exponential growth in computing power (cf. Moore’s law: over the history of computers, the number of transistors on integrated circuits has doubled every approx. two years). Hamilton’s medium is an extremely dangerous one to work in, therefore, for a fine artist who is concerned with reputation, memory and oeuvre. The technically gifted artists in this medium are many, anonymous, and probably work for advertising agencies or video game developers or some such thing. They also probably work in teams.
That is the constant problem with Pop (which to be honest Hamilton has left a lot of behind – by Pop I mean here something that deals head-on with everyday life’s illusions): that advertising agencies are always better than you at making it. Not only this, “advertising agencies” are a flabby, amorphous, interchangeable concept whose work gets thrown away too quickly for it to age in public. Hamilton’s decade-old computer graphics are put up in museums as the work of a great, recently deceased artist. His target races away from him, and the target seems necessary. By losing touch with what digital media actually looks like he loses touch with the current myth. The illusion alive in the world closes up again, and the illusion Hamilton revealed as illusion is superannuated and vanishes.

Advertising is always ahead of Pop Art in terms of parodying the world. There is a great Tom Wolfe essay somewhere in which he complains the modern world isn’t fair on artists anymore because it is free to be as hackneyed, obvious and gaudy as it likes – the modern world makes for a novel who’s plot nobody would believe. It is far too artificial; it’s far too unlikely. (“’He turned my house into a SEX DUNGEON!’ Chantelle Houghton’s astonishing revelation as she claims cage fighter Alex Reid ‘arranged to dress as alter ego Roxanne to meet a man’” – Daily Mail, 30th October, 2012). The illusion that makes up day-to-day life is already more powerful than any illusion in an art gallery. And it is renewed every day, not frozen in a specific once-contemporary time, waiting to be outdated.

So Hamilton did a pretty good Photoshop job with ‘Shock and Awe’. With these Late Works it seems like Hamilton is very good at programming, but could have used a better visual effects team. His models are all pretty badly rendered, as are his interiors. While maybe they are meant to look “digital” – maybe that’s the point – digital now looks like real life (ignoring the inevitable hubris that comes with dating that statement ‘now’, 2012).

What Hamilton gives us is not “digital”, it is what “digital” looked like a decade ago. Some of these pictures were actually made a decade ago, some five – it’s not their fault. But Pop now has to go up against Real Life, which has welcomed the airbrush so warmly. Computers have truly arrived: there is nothing so real-looking as digital.
Donald Davie (I think, I can’t find the quotation) said, of the American Poet Ezra Pound, something like “history overtook him” – a way to describe the aging of a genius most beautiful and full of pathos. By the end, Pound was fighting a battle (on a highly questionable side might I add) but the war that was around him had moved elsewhere. One can’t help but feel that technology has overtaken Richard Hamilton. A clever, intelligent, innovative pioneer he was, doubtless, but from his acorns have grown many mighty oaks. Could the Mayflower Pilgrims have dreamt The United States of America? The residents of Jamestown might have wished it. History doesn’t forgive pioneers. Giotto is in the Uffizi and all is well with him. But we don’t believe his flies. Richard Hamilton is in the National Gallery.

**** 4 Stars
Words by Jack Castle © 2012

Main Image: Richard Hamilton, ‘“Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu”- a painting in three parts’, 2011 (printed 2012). Private collection. © courtesy of the Estate of Richard Hamilton.

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