If one of the roles of art is to shake us out of the topor of our lives, the work of Richard Hamilton offers a mighty shake. His mercurial, ever changing style feels less about visual experimentation than about an endlessly restless evolution in his thinking and a relentless search to discover… to invent the form and style that would best accommodate his vision, or, in old fashioned terms, finding the medium for his message. It’s the painter’s version of the writer’s search for the right words. Hamilton’s paintings are a series of illuminated insights into both his mind and the world it’s observing. They’re either ruminative introspections or fierce, uncompromising stabs at the day to day lies that are part of the topor. It’s work that is often unashamedly and overtly political in its honest, passionate confrontation with the politicians and politics of the day, no matter their party allegiance. Indeed, if thinking had form and colour, here’s what it would look like.
For as we continue to sleepwalk through the daily violations – against the planet, the poor, women, the institutions we’ve inherited from a vanishing past, and what have you – with the full knowledge that very little separates our Corporatist politicians (no matter the colors of their politics), thank God we still have the howls of our artists. Hamilton is a howling painter; and you can’t come away from his art without having been shaped by the persuasiveness of his paint, the honesty of his passion.
Hamilton’s (first) extraordinary visual breakthrough, as the artist found the style for his sensibilities, came with his collage of magazine images: “just what is it that makes today’s homes so Appealing”. It helped launch what became (derisively?) referred to as Pop Art – presenting us life as shallow as an advertising montage. Nowadays, it’s a visual style, an easy reference point that’s as much a part of the wallpaper of the galleries of art and meaning that orbit our brains like so much flotsam and jetsam. But then, it must have been such a sudden aha moment. Here’s a painting that must have had the shock effect of “Guernica”. It offered an image of success and affluence thru the – new- lens of a consumerist world that is all surface and design.
The people in the collage (this was just the first of many) are really no more than the sculpt and shape of their bodies, as glittering a display as the furniture and brands that are the eco- system of life. The materials he uses are all clipped from the palette of commerce: cut outs from ads and magazines. The painting suggests a -dehumanized- vision of man as no more than material display and codified visually what was an emerging new zeitgeist.
It was painted around 1956/7, the same year of Vance Packard’s seminal book, “The Hidden Persuaders” with which it seems much aligned and foreshadowed those icons of pop, Andy Warhol’s whose “100 Soup Cans”(1962) and Lichtenstein’s’ ‘Wham” (1963). There was a simple stylistic truth behind these works: like Hamilton’s they seemed to prove the point that the medium was the message. So obvious now, so revolutionary idea then via Marshall McLuhan’s “The Gutenberg Galaxy”.
Certainly few artists have been able to tap into the zeitgeist of the time like Hamilton. His is the shout that makes heard the hypocrisy of so much government pomp and the silent outrage so many share
An iconic paparazzi photo of Jagger in handcuffs, snatched (Jagger that is, not the photo) by the ever vigilant British police (those same police more often than not nowadays in the docks for their entrenched racism and serial abuse of power) even as the country marketed itself as Swinging Britain is repositioned brilliantly as “Sweinging Britain”. This is one of many ‘paintings’ where Hamilton used blown up photos, snap-shots really, and customized them to his perspective. It’s as though he’s turned the intrusiveness of the photographer, the gloating paparazzi voyeurism away from its ostensible subject – Mick’s arrest – into its own subject. This is Hamilton as semiotician at play. He offers us multiple views and renderings of the same photo – it’s the artist enfolding the viewer into the process, into his processing of the image into thought
His near-realist portrait of Blair, as a fully kitted-out cowboy summarizes everything about the ex-prime minister with the witty precision of a political cartoonist. His choice of a style of heightened reality is a play on realities…on what is shown, the brand being created and the unseen reality ( what we’re seeing isn’t real, it’s a fiction, simple art- ifice). This is a dual image: a smug, self-satisfied Blair of his own warped fantasy: the badass, Clint Eastwood tamer of the wild West and of the reality beneath the image: a striving, showy, megalomaniac appropriating the costume of the culture he danced to. The image of British colonialism has shifted from the pith helmet to the Stetson.
In this painting of Hugh Gaitskell – who rejected a policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament – aptly entitled “Portrait of Hugh Gaitskell as a Famous Monster of Filmland” the politician is presented as a bogey-man (hiding) behind a mask.
It’s a mask divided into two halves – the two faced man; an image of deceitfulness and disguise… not so much the portrait of a person, more a portrait of a class of people… of politicians as a whole.
With Hamilton’s work, the viewer is an absolute participant in his work and often, to fully participate, needs some background grounding to appreciate the significance and wit of his imagery.
In this installation of Thatcher/torture, I was there when a group of visiting French students, unfamiliar with the iron lady and her excesses stood non-plussed at what they were seeing. (And maybe in fifty, a hundred years time, audiences will also be non-plussed by the details of meaning just as most modern audiences are non-plussed by much of the arcane symbolism behind so much Medieval and Renaissance art). Here Hamilton has moved away from what might be the aesthetic distractions of painting to an installation. He wants to immerse the viewer in the reality of Western interrogation and, wittily, the horror, the horror of being subjected to an infinite loop of Thatcher’s preaching – surely the epitome of inhuman punishment Sometimes all it takes to illustrate a point is a simple ‘show and tell’.
Here Hamilton offers us two maps: one before the Israeli settlements began their encroachments into Palestine; the other, several years later. Perhaps Putin should have proceeded via “settlements” rather than the “annexation” of Crimea to avoid the hypocritical censure of the West.
It’s not all political comment. His art’s reference points are often to art itself; and there’s always the tacit understanding that artist and viewer share the intimacy of these references. They become a means of de-familiarization and shock, and the springboard to a point of view being expressed.
Fra Angelico’s “Annunciation” – a worshipful, reverential, symbol-laden painting of devotion and faith – and such a part of our store-house of Renaissance images is reimagined through these various naked women.
Here Hamilton is deliberately conflating nakedness with nudity. Kenneth Clark in his seminal work, The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form, observes that: The English language, with its elaborate generosity, distinguishes between the naked and the nude. To be naked is to be deprived of our clothes, and the word implies some of the embarrassment most of us feel in that condition. The word “nude,” on the other hand, carries, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone. The vague image it projects into the mind is not of a huddled and defenseless body, but of a balanced, prosperous, and confident body” He notes that “The body is not one of those subjects which can be made into art by direct transcription — like a tiger or a snowy landscape. . . . We do not wish to imitate; we wish to perfect” So the nude is about a striving for perfection for an ideal of beauty. Hamilton’s ‘nudes’ update this perspective. In “The Passage of the Angel to the Virgin” he’s made a clear separation from the artistic and fake looking arches to the ‘realism’ of the women.
The other painting shown here is “The Balzac”. It references an image we’re all familiar with and was inspired by a story from Balzac, about the artist’s – inevitably fruitless – search for perfection (represented by the nude). In his final –unfinished – work, we’re confronted with the incongruous image of three older men discussing something, in the presence of a naked woman. The men shown here are Poussin, Courbet and Titian, representing youth, middle age and the elderly, and also representing a sense of the timelessness of the artistic pursuit not just of beauty, but of an ideal. The three are rendered in an almost impressionistic style – it’s a painting of painters. She however is, like his annunciation, presented to us with the realism and naturalism of photography. The women live in different ontologies from the rest of the paintings In both the women seem to remain indifferent to the shock or the leers of their viewers. Somehow, their nakedness does not render them vulnerable or defenceless. Their self-absorption separates them from outside harm. Indeed, Hamilton’s updating of the idea of the nude seems to be suggesting that these women do not need the artist’s ‘improving’ touch. Such an improvement would be more of an intrusion from which the artist, as demonstrated by the two ontologies, is excluded Art is often – always? – prescient and unafraid in its honesty and observance of the zeitgeist ( which is why so many politicians fear it ).
An historical perspective such as the Tate’s exhibition sadly shows how much things have clearly degenerated since the early 60’s. Art’s power to effect change remains limited. And Life as a succession of well-honed brands (is Blair any less of a brand than, say, Kleenex…or more appropriately Uzi?) has simply been shaped by an Establishment that has co-opted the howl of Hamilton and made his rage just another part of corporate decor. We can but hope art keeps raging. Nothing else will save us