Richard Hamilton - an Illustrator of Ideas

By Julius, Muriel | Contemporary Review, September 1992 | Go to article overview

Richard Hamilton - an Illustrator of Ideas


Julius, Muriel, Contemporary Review


ONE balmy autumn day in 1975 1 went to the Serpentine Gallery in He had become famous in 1956 with his concipient collage |Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing?' illustrating many of the desirable consumer icons of the time. With it he jettisoned himself and Pop Art into motion.

The walls of the Serpentine were hung with a great number of airbrushed and daubed landscapes, vaguely arcadian, with two pale models languishing amid the green glades. Prominent in the foreground was an unmistakable roll of toilet paper, the word |Andrex' clearly marked upon it. Alongside were a number of Cezanneque flower paintings. In |Flower Piece II' (No. 72) instead of the traditional enhancing element, a shell, some insect or a skull beneath the bowl of flowers there were instead two elongated brown objects -- could it be -- yes, indeed they were faeces. One or two such paintings might be considered amusing, but an entire exhibition?

At the recent Press showing of his retrospective exhibition at the Tate Gallery, Mr. Hamilton explained to a group of strangely muted journalists. Those canvases were a send-up of a conceptual advertising campaign -- conceived incidentally by the artist Bridget Riley -- to promote the new novelty of coloured, as opposed to white toilet paper. In a high-minded comment at the time Hamilton said |flowery allure is an irrelevant anachronism in the context of cultural ideas of our period. It takes perversity and a touch of irony to make it tolerable'.

The late vituperative art critic Peter Fuller's famous attack on Hamilton dates from this time. |It was the Serpentine exhibition', he wrote, |that made me realize just what an whore of an artist he was', was one of his kinder comments. He was by no means alone in thinking that these paintings should be relegated to the incinerator of history.

This is Richard Hamilton's second retrospective exhibition at the Tate, an honour afforded to few artists: denied to Graham Sutherland in his lifetime, yet to be bestowed on either Lucien Freud or Frank Auerbach. It has occasioned a crop of lukewarm reviews. Hamilton reflects the mass imagery and technological discoveries of the age more than almost any other artist, but he is no painter's painter. His drawing is weak; his painting arid.

From 1953 to 1966 Hamilton taught design in the Fine Art Department of what became Newcastle University. He was a teacher who believed in the precedence of the idea over the practice -- a precept which, to the fury of many, is still propogated in art schools today. Through his written and spoken words Hamilton became, as early as 1970, something rare among British artists at that time, a truly international figure.

As the founding theorist of Pop Art he had set out its precepts in 1957: |Popular (designed for a mass audience): transient (short-term solution): expendable (easily forgotten): low cost (mass produced): young (aimed at youth): witty: sexy: gimmicky: and last but not least, Big Business'.

Hamilton's images do not spring purely from his imagination but had specific sources -- magazine articles, advertising, newspaper photographs, anything indeed that came to hand. From an article in Playboy magazine on male fashion in the early sixties came |Towards a definitive statement on coming trends in men's wear and accessories' a weird conglomoration of an astronaut's helmet, a chest expander, Y-front underpants, binoculars and other items supposed to enhance the masculine image. (Nos. 20-23).

|Hommage a Chrysler Corp' 1957 tackles the |rhetoric of persuasion' -- Reyner Banham's phrase -- written into car design and marketing. Oil paint, photographic print, metal foil and collage combine to make the image; the flesh-coloured full-breasted woman is caressing the machine, a machine with feminine attributes. This was the first of five Pop paintings to explore the allusive play between girls and machines.

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