Richard Hamilton 1922-2011

By Head, Tim | Art Monthly, October 2011 | Go to article overview

Richard Hamilton 1922-2011


Head, Tim, Art Monthly


The year was 1965, Richard Hamilton's final year of teaching, after 12 years, in the fine art department of the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne--and my first year as an art student. Early influences imbibed as a young undergraduate always seem to cling to you for the rest of your life; how fortunate I was that this formative influence came from Richard. For his students, Richard's approach to teaching represented an exciting alternative to the narrow academic and parochial model that still prevailed in many other art schools. This new approach was clearly more relevant in relation to what else was happening within the broader culture at the time--in art, design, film and music.

Richard's inclusive view of art offered us a liberating and critical insight into what it meant to make art within a contemporary context that exists alongside the other visual languages--design, advertising, film and TV--that make up a large part of our world. The Basic Design Course that Richard devised in parallel with Victor Pasmore's course (the two strands were later merged) was divided into weekly segments, with each examining a basic ingredient of art-making in isolation. Over time, the weekly investigations provided us with the building blocks of a visual language that was as relevant to a fine artist as it was to an industrial designer or filmmaker. At the end of each weekly unit, Richard would preside over an analysis of our offerings, assisted by Mark Lancaster, who had himself recently completed the course, encouraging us to be alert to the various implications of our decisions--a kind of celebration of visual intelligence. This approach impressed upon me the importance of art as an enquiry: an investigation into aspects of the world around us rather than as the conduit of a supposedly purely subjective outpouring. The Basic Course at Newcastle, along with Harry Thubron's course at Leeds became the model that most British art schools would later follow.

In addition to the novel course structure, Richard's own active involvement with other artists, especially those from the rest of Europe and the US, made his students feel connected to a wider art world context. For example, the first talk I attended during my introductory weeks at Newcastle was by David Hockney, who was invited there by Richard.

Richard's talks on his own work revealed a forensic intelligence mixed with a delight in pictorial detail. He spoke of his shock and admitted to a degree of envy when confronted with artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein during his first visit to the US in 1963; artists who appeared able to deal so directly with their subject matter. But it became clear that his interests lay in a different direction: in the nuances of symbolic meaning within contemporary images in relation to their historical precedents, or in the psychological effect that a small detail can exert.

A true pioneer in his teaching and his own work, Richard introduced the relatively new photo-silkscreen process into the mix of more traditional techniques in the department, working at the time on his own series of 'My Marilyn' prints with a multi-layering of positive and negative images in different colour combinations.

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