I have to confess that Richard Hamilton is an artist in whom I had never really taken much interest while he was alive (he died 13 September 2011 aged 89). Apart from the seminal collage piece “Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?” (shown at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1956), the rest of Hamilton’s oeuvre pretty much passed me by; and that is a great shame. I originally booked a ticket to see the retrospective of Hamilton’s work at Tate Modern as a ‘deal’ joint ticket with the Matisse show. If I had realised how much Hamilton’s work would resonate with me I would have gone to see it before.
cover from the exhibition pamphlet (Interior II)
Hamilton was a modern artist in every sense of the word. A painter, printmaker, photographer, collagist; he was the first British artist to associate with international artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Dieter Roth and Roy Lichtenstein. He had a keen interest in the contemporary world and popular media from which he drew constant inspiration. I think it is this which found its mark and piqued my interest in him.
A member of the Independent Group of artists, he exhibited in the seminal “This is Tomorrow” exhibition (T.I.T) at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1956. Often called the “Father of Pop Art” Hamilton’s work was populated by celebrities, politicians but also by anonymous people from the crowd where the focus was always on the people. This interest is illustrated perfectly by his work “My Marilyn” from 1965. After the star’s death, Hamilton came across a set of contact images taken by the photographer George Barris which had been marked and scratch by Monroe herself. Hamilton was much moved by this violent defacement of her own image that he used them in his piece with painted gestures and erasings to recall those made by Marilyn.
postcard image showing ‘My Marilyn’
Hamilton made many works in series which probably reflects his interest in printmaking. Some 10 years after his first collaged piece for “This is Tomorrow” Hamilton returned to the theme of the interior after coming across a film publicity still for “Shockproof” starring the actress Patricia Knight. Knight is standing over the body of a man she has just shot, but in Hamilton’s pieces she is silk screened into two different interior spaces each creating an odd sense of dislocation and foreboding.
His interest in popular culture continued through the 60’s and no subject matter was left untapped. From the world of fashion to the infamous events surrounding the arrest of the Rolling Stones for drugs offences in 1967 to the shooting of students at Kent State University in Ohio, Hamilton tackled each with zeal.
One of a series of fashion images from the 60’s (postcard)
The exhibition comprises some 18 rooms and while I was spellbound by much of the work, some if it I couldn’t help feeling was a little ‘obvious’. Room 12 called “Treatment Room” is an installation comprising a hospital bed/trolley, flanked by a treatment screen for x-rays and over hung by a television broadcasting footage of Margaret Thatcher election broadcast speech from 1983. I couldn’t help feeling this was a little ‘light weight’ when compared to the earlier painting of the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell entitled “Portrait of Hugh Gaitskell as a Famous Monster from Filmland”. Oddly, the Thatcher installation reminded me of the contemporary artist Jeremy Deller’s work.
Room 13 was the room which captivated me the most. 3 large-scale paintings hang as a triptych called “The Citizen/The Subject/The State” all based on stills from news reports about the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Although these 3 works now hang together, they were created across a 13 year period. The first, ‘The Citizen’ was made in 1980 and features the painted image of an inmate from the Long Kesh ‘Dirty protest’. While Hamilton wrote that he did not condone the activities of the IRA, it was the idea about christian martyrdom which had inspired him, together with the likening of the elaborate swirls of the excrement on the walls to the patterning in the Book of Kells. The second painting, ‘The Subject’ shows an ‘Orangeman’ in full regalia and is the antithesis of ‘The Citizen’. It was also the first time Hamilton made a painting with the use of a computer and also features the cell window from ‘The Citizen’ behind the Orangeman’s shoulder, a link that binds the two works together. The final piece in this triptych is ‘The State’ made in 1993 as part of his work for the Venice Biennale. It shows a British soldier patrolling the streets in Northern Ireland, Hamilton collaged camouflage material onto the surface of the painting canvas, the swirls of the disruptive pattern recalling the swirls evident in both earlier works. The whole is a powerful piece which speaks volubly about the politics of the State during the ‘Troubles’.
If I had to choose which of the two shows spoke louder to me, Matisse or Hamilton, I would have to say it was the Hamilton. Here was an artist who was fascinated by the modern world, unafraid to use and exploit the new mediums available (technology) while remaining true to the traditional mediums such as printmaking and painting. An engaged person who actively initiated dialogue with the world through his work, I can only wish I had taken the time to find out more about him while he was still alive.