Richard Hamilton at Tate Modern

Smarter than Francis Bacon and more daring than Henry Moore, Richard Hamilton was the most important British artist of the twentieth century. We find out how he stayed ahead of the pack

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  • Richard Hamilton

    'Hommage à Chrysler Corp' 1957

    © The estate of Richard Hamilton

    Richard Hamilton
  • Richard Hamilton

    'Still-life' 1965

    © The estate of Richard Hamilton

    Richard Hamilton
  • Richard Hamilton

    'Kent State' 1970

    © The estate of Richard Hamilton

    Richard Hamilton
  • Richard Hamilton

    'The Citizen' 1981-3

    © The estate of Richard Hamilton

    Richard Hamilton
  • Richard Hamilton

    Marcel Duchamp 
'The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass)
', 1915–23, reconstruction by Richard Hamilton 1965–66, lower panel remade 1985

    © The estate of Richard Hamilton

    Richard Hamilton
  • Richard Hamilton

    'Bathroom - Fig. 2' 1999-2000

    © The estate of Richard Hamilton

    Richard Hamilton
  • Richard Hamilton

    'Shock and Awe' 2010

    © The estate of Richard Hamilton

    Richard Hamilton
  • Richard Hamilton

    'Sunset', 1974

    © The estate of Richard Hamilton

    Richard Hamilton

Richard Hamilton

'Hommage à Chrysler Corp' 1957

© The estate of Richard Hamilton

Having pipped the likes of Andy Warhol to the post in 1954 with his proto-pop collage 'Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing?' Richard Hamilton could have rested on his laurels, happy in the knowledge that his place in history was assured. But Hamilton, whose death in 2011 aged 89 robbed us of our most forward-thinking artist, wanted more than to bathe in history's glow: he wanted to mine its most intense images - like Mick Jagger and the art dealer Robert Fraser handcuffed together after a drugs bust in 'Swingeing London 67' (1968), or IRA prisoner Hugh Rooney  standing beside his shit-daubed walls in 'The Citizen' - and reflect them back to us as cool, often highly satirical artworks. As much as he celebrated the fast pace and seductive lustre of the times in paintings like the sexy semi-abstraction 'Hommage à Chrysler Corp' (1957), he looked beyond flashy surfaces, fast cars and smooth celebs to examine how those images entered our consciousness via newspapers or were beamed into our living rooms on TV.

'He looked beyond flashy surfaces, fast cars and smooth celebs'

If he lacks the wider fame of twentieth-century artists like Francis Bacon and Henry Moore, it's probably down to his desire to keep ahead of the game by changing it. Mark Godfrey, curator of Tate Modern's Hamilton retrospective, which opens this week, says that Hamilton's slipperiness was a deliberate strategy. 'I think he is hard to pin down because he wanted to change styles and approaches between every group of works. You'll find that throughout the exhibition - works that deal with the Vietnam War at the same time as works that deal with fashion models in Vogue.'

'Palindrome' 1974

'Palindrome' 1974 © The estate of Richard Hamilton

Hamilton took his cue from chess-playing dada supremo and pisstaking purveyor of the urinal-as-artwork, Marcel Duchamp. Like Duchamp, Hamilton seized on readymade objects, using images of freshly-minted consumer desirables like Braun toasters but replacing the logo with his own name. 'I don't think he's mocking Braun in anyway,' says Godfrey. 'But I think he's playing around with the idea of the artist as a single author, associated with a style of brushstroke, and being tongue in cheek about the idea of the artist's signature. For me, the key question is how Hamilton managed to be sceptical about values of consumer culture while at the same time really appreciative of the objects it created.'

Obsessed with how pictures are selected, edited and served up to us, Hamilton was the ultimate history painter for the modern, media-saturated age. 'He was really interested in the transmission of images through technology,' says Godfrey. It's plain to see in 'Kent State' (1970), in which an image of a student shot during a peaceful anti-Vietman War demonstration is framed by the curve of a TV screen. 'Nowadays, he'd be dealing with the idea of watching TV on your smartphone on the way to work.'

Hamilton shows us a world where the roles of subject, consumer and sometimes even patient overlap. This makes for a chilling vision in his installation 'The Treatment Room' (1983-84), in which Margaret Thatcher delivers a speech via a video monitor placed above a bed in a hospital room. For Hamilton, the particular speech was important. 'It was the first party political broadcast for which a British politician hired an image consultant,' says Godfrey. 'I think he intuited that this was a shift in British politics, away from a moment in the 1970s when British politicians would tell you what their policies were, to a moment where politicians create an image, and that becomes more important than what is being said.'

'There's a materiality that people can enjoy'

It's not all screens and machines, though. 'There's a materiality that people can really enjoy,' says Godfrey. 'The way he uses oil paint, his range of touches, drips and strokes, is beautiful.'

And if you like a chuckle with your conceptualism, the Tate's show includes a string of works from what Hamilton called his 'scatalogical period' from the early 1970s. These are a series of paintings and prints of schmaltzy sunsets, pastel landscapes and saccharine still lifes to which the artist has added loo rolls and neat extrusions of poo. Richard Hamilton: exquisitely aware of the sleek, sanitised, mediated world in which we live, but never afraid to cause a stink.


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‘Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?’, 1956/1992

‘Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?’, 1956/1992 Private Collection © Richard Hamilton

Pop art: a blagger's guide

Pop art legend Richard Hamilton is the flavour of February with a retrospective at Tate Modern and a show at the ICA. Bit shaky on your art history? Here's what to say on your date at the Tate

 

Richard Hamilton: in his own words

Here's what the godfather of contemporary British art told us when we spoke in 2010



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4 comments
Matthew
Matthew

After hearing that Richard Hamilton was the "father" of pop art, and led the way for the likes of Damien Hurst, I was really looking forward to seeing what amazing art pieces he had produced in his lifetime. Sadly the reality was rather disappointing though. There were few pieces that really impressed me, in particular his early work being very underwhelming. The extensive introductions to his art by the time out and Tate staff were extremely interesting and insightful, and did really help me to appreciate his art a lot more, but sadly I could not muster up the same level of enthusiasm and awe that they had. This is one show to be left for the real contemporary art buffs, who I'm sure will find it insightful, but not one for the average joe with only a passing interest in contemporary art.

Anthony D
Anthony D

This was my first encounter with Richard Hamilton's work and although it was an enjoyable exhibition I was certainly not blown away. Undoubtedly a few compositions will enthral by the sheer skill and painstaking effort necessary to construct them but I found much to be of a lesser aesthetic or provocative quality. As someone just turning 30, perhaps the cultural references to the sixties, seventies etc didn't induce the same emotional connect that some older viewers experience. For example, before viewing the exhibition we had a couple of preview talks. As elaborated by one of the speakers, Richard Hamilton regarded toasters in their shiny metallic bodies to be erotic household items that could entice females into the kitchen and he displays them prominently in several of his pieces. I suppose you had to live through such eras were a toaster was a luxurious and wondrous item to really appreciate this. (Or more likely I've just missed the point). In summary, do go to experience early British pop art for its idiosyncratic qualities but it's unlikely to leave a lasting impression.

Lara Brooks
Lara Brooks

Really enjoyed the exhibition. Very quirky. Liked the poloroids the best and finding out who took them.

Joanna
Joanna

What a magical exhibition. I have been a fan of Richard Hamilton since writing a thesis on Pop Art at College in 1983. His work has not lost any of it's freshness or wit in the intervening years. The works range from the bizarre to the political with an interesting selection of odd obsessions. Every room causes us to review the way we look at things, from science to space to politics. I was entranced by the postcard portraits – something to inspire us all to make some art – even if we do not have such illustrious friends to hand a camera to. We were treated to a couple of fantastic preview talks which whetted our appetite. Then I was personally challenged with the question of "who is kissing who". I was unable to answer completely but I am not completely defeated yet, although Google has been reluctant to help me. If you visit the exhibition and know the answer please share! Thank you Tate Modern and thank you Time Out.

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