Richard Hamilton A Meticulous And Prescient Chronicler – London Retrospective

Richard Hamilton is a truly influential figure in the history of British art; considered to be the founder of the Pop Art movement. This retrospective is a collaboration between Tate Modern and the ICA, and covers the eclectic career of a very important British artist who wanted to get ‘all of living’ into his art.

Richard Hamilton’s work chronicles socio-cultural changes throughout the twentieth century, at the same time as it embraces the rise of technology. The artist translates the Duchampian language of the object with a populist bent. His was an art of disparate subject matters and methods, from ploughs and toasters to the iconography of the Swinging Sixties [an iconography that the artist helped to create] via Goya, Da Vinci, and James Joyce. The father of Pop Art, and the Grandfather of Brit Art; Richard Hamilton was an artist with an analytical gaze, and a methodical twist, not echoed by his Pop Art peers.

Hamilton was one of the first artists to embrace digital technology as a medium of exploration. This was a reflection of a futurist ideology; technology enhances human ability, and also, one could say; increases the ability of the artist to communicate.

Hamilton was always at the forefront in appropriating contemporary methods of production. An aspect mirrored by a lifelong fascination with industrial design.

From 1950s austerity to the introduction of American products and design into a British marketplace; the epoch of consumerist culture and capitalist growth that would turn a stoic 50s Britain into a swinging amoral 60s one.

With a Duchampian response to the consumerist objects of the time, the ready-made in his art, the found object; always possessed a relevance to the period. The artist’s Braun toothbrush with candy atop reflects Duchampian non-authorship in art, at the same time as highlighting the all pervasive design influence of the day with a subversive wink to the viewer.

From his ‘Reapers’ of 1949, to the artist’s ‘Just what is it that make today’s new homes so different, so appealing?’ 1956 – Hamilton was along for the ride and reflecting that ride a decade at a time, or even seeming to ring in the cultural sea change before the prevailing Zeitgeist took hold.

This was a journey that saw the artist’s work being utterly varied yet completely consistent; Hamilton’s art is at once a juxtaposition and reflection of the early post-war decades and their swift cultural and moral ascension, or decline; a viewpoint entirely dependent on your perspective. At times the artist’s work can now be seen as completely prescient of the socio-cultural changes to come:

‘This Is Tomorrow’ is the recreation of the 1956 installation, that was a collaboration between artists and architects, in this case with John Voelcker and John McHale, that includes the collaged images of film posters, sci-fi imagery, and advertising. This is part of the structure that was to become known as the ‘Fun-House’ – including sensory stimuli and optical illusions – with a jukebox churning out greatest hits.

With its bright colours, sounds, and multi-media approach; the piece balked against the austerity of the decade in which it was created, and heralded the 1960s before they had even arrived.

Hamilton meticulously devoured imagery from popular culture and recycled it into collage, screen print, sculpture and painting; the latter being a method that separated the artist from Duchampian purists; An innovative and technical painter of various styles, engaging with a multitude of subjects – Hamilton was a true ‘modernist’ in its broadest sense.

This interest in reflecting the socio-cultural events of popular culture are evident in the works ‘Swingeing London 67’ showing the arrest of Mick Jagger handcuffed to the artist’s gallery owner Robert Fraser, titled after the judges reference to a ‘swingeing sentence’ – or Hamilton’s paintings of the television images of the Kent State University Shootings, that have also been important in the works of artist Richard Prince. Both of Hamilton’s works are concerned with the importance and meaning of the image as a socio-cultural value.

In fact Hamilton would do his own form of ‘Protest Picture’ – much like the artist Richard Prince – often an indictment of power; whether those were attacks on that of Gaitskell, or Thatcher, or Tony Blair as a gun slinger in the work ‘Shock and Awe’ – Hamilton’s work was not without political statement as a chronicler of his times.  The artist was ‘passionately responsive’ to every decade through which he passed.

After the death of Marilyn Monroe, Hamilton chanced upon a contact sheet of her images from a beach shoot by photographer George Barris; in which Monroe – to quote the artist – had actively caused the ‘violent obliteration of her own image’ in scratching out the images that she did not want to be published.

The images are recreated in ‘My Marilyn’ with painterly gestures reflecting that of Monroe’s savage defilements. These works have a direct relationship to Warhol’s use of Marilyn Monroe as an iconic pop image of socio-cultural value; with Hamilton’s use there is also an intimacy that is evocative of an individual’s perception of their own value as an image in popular culture, and the loneliness that accompanies placing that value on one’s self.

One enduring oeuvre throughout Hamilton’s career was the creation of Polaroid portraits of himself by fellow artists; these were published in four volumes and spanned a thirty year period. With portraits of the artist created by the art glitterati of the day, from Lichtenstein to Lennon; Hamilton began to recognise the ‘sensibility’ of each creator in the corresponding image.

Francis Bacon’s Polaroids of the artist were blurred and poorly lit. They were formerly reminiscent of his own paintings.

Fascination for this observation turned into a request by Hamilton for Bacon to paint into the images. But when Bacon declined; Hamilton attempted to teach himself Bacon’s brushstroke, and with that created ‘Portrait Of The Artist By Francis Bacon’. Simultaneously a work of photography by Bacon and a painting by Hamilton.

A slyly inadvertent collaboration between arguably the greatest British painter of the twentieth century, and possibly the most innovative British artist of his generation, and perhaps our own.

Words: Paul Black © Artlyst 2014 Photo: Courtesy Tate Modern

Richard Hamilton Retrospective at Tate Modern and ICA until 26th May 2014.

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