The enduring appeal of Richard Hamilton

By Cressida Smart

“He was always part of another art world from the Royal College of Art.” (David Hockney)

Richard Hamilton, British artist, passed away on Tuesday 13 September, aged 89.

A painter and printmaker born in London in 1922, Richard Hamilton studied at the Royal Academy Schools and the Slade School of Fine Art.  He initially made his living by making models and designing art exhibitions. Later he taught design at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London and the University of Durham in Newcastle-on-Tyne.

In his long and productive life, he created the most important and enduring works of any British modern painter.  Many may gasp with surprise, maybe even horror at this statement and vehemently argue the case for Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud and Damien Hirst.  Hamilton changed the face of art when he put a lolly with the word POP on it in the hand of a muscleman in his 1956 collage, Just What is it that Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing? 

This well known collage work was created for the Whitechapel Art Gallery’s interdisciplinary exhibition “This Is Tomorrow”, one of the shows that launched the burgeoning British pop art movement.  Hamilton’s piece physically idealised a naked couple posing in an interior filled with products, logos, and slogans.  He was credited with coining the name for a movement marked by its ironic and iconic use of commercial and pop culture imagery.  In 1957, he wrote: “Pop art is popular (designed for a mass audience), transient (short term solution), expendable (easily forgotten), low cost, mass produced, young (aimed at youth), witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous, big business.“.

Hamilton’s second great influence on the art of today was his championing of Duchamp at a time when the Frenchman’s revolutionary philosophical art was largely forgotten. One of Hamilton’s masterpieces is his replica of Duchamp’s Large Glass, in Tate Modern.  His reverence for Duchamp and the concept of the ready-made, helped determine the course of his art after the 1960s.  He manipulated found objects and photographs, putting his own spin on newspaper photographs, postcards and industrial objects.

His art is thoughtful, yet troubled, even as it celebrates the power of technology. He designed a computer as a readymade artwork in the early days of digital.  He saw and accepted the way technology changes the human condition. Hamilton’s art also became increasingly political. Unusually for a Pop artist, Hamilton made an overtly political statement in 1964 with “Hugh Gaitskell as a Famous Monster of Filmland”.  He merged a photograph of Claude Rains as the Phantom of the Opera with a newspaper photograph of Hugh Gaitskell, leader of the Labour Party, who, when the work was begun, had refused to support nuclear disarmament.

He confronted issues from the trouble in Northern Ireland to both Iraq wars in works that propelled him from being a somewhat trendy artist to even more of a serious profound proposition.  These works analyse the way images are made, yet their intellect is saturated with outrage and compassion.

For half a century, these striking and often political images, included Mick Jagger in handcuffsafter a drug raid to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair as a cowboy in a 2007 piece entitled “Shock and Awe“.  One of his best-known works is the antithesis of Pop Art’s colorful cacophony: the monochrome cover of The Beatles’ “White Album” a simple white square embossed with the band’s name. Hamilton also designed the collage-style poster that came with the album.  He also worked on a project to illustrate James Joyce’s novel “Ulysses.”

In the seventies, Hamilton re-examined landscape and still-life genres and added a sense of perversity and irony to them.  Such works include the out-of-focus, idyllic landscapes like Soft blue landscape, his flower pieces and sunsets, which feature rolls of toilet paper and Flower piece II (1973) which introduced excrement as a form of memento mori. Another of his main subjects is interiors, from Interior II (1964) – in which a still from a film is manipulated –Langan’s (1976) – a view of a restaurant hung on the actual space it represents – and Lobby (1985-1987) which was later transformed into an installation which delves into the illusion of a painting within a painting.

Between 1982 and 1993, Hamilton created a series of historical paintings based on the Northern Ireland conflict. The citizen1982-1983, transforms an IRA prisoner into an image with a mystic aspect, and his excrement stained cell – a result of the “dirty protest” – into an abstract painting. The work’s companion piece is The subject (1988-1990), the image of a marching Orangeman. Hamilton questions observed images from the media as well as historical and artistic iconography. For the last ten years, he has continued to work on self-portraits, such as those he began in 1968 using Polaroids. These are photos of Hamilton taken by other artists and acquaintances and then later manipulated and enlarged.

Aside from being an artist, he participated tirelessly in other cultural activities, as a writer, art and design teacher and organiser of exhibitions such as the retrospective shows of Picabia in 1964 and Marcel Duchamp in1968.  Hamilton’s work was the forerunner of the use of figuration and photography as a basis for painting and he has had a profound influence on many generations of artists, from Gilbert & George to the Young British Artists of the early nineties.
He remained active up until his death and was working on a major museum retrospective scheduled to travel to Los Angeles, Philadelphia, London and Madrid in 2013 and 2014.

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