Richard Hamilton is touted as Britain’s most important post war artist, but I have to admit that a year ago when the National Gallery showed his late works, I simply didn’t get them. Meeting the same paintings again in the last rooms of this huge Tate Modern retrospective (until 26 May), they made sense. There is something wonderful about a retrospective that takes the viewer on a journey with the artist as his career develops, and the Tate does these very well. One floor below me was the Klee with his fantastical drawings and delicate watercolours, and the dark pall the war cast over the early freshness of his colours. To be honest, I could have walked out with half a dozen Klee’s under my coat, while I would have struggled to choose a single Hamilton to hang at home. That’s probably because they are much more cerebral works that comment on an era of vapid consumerism, but it doesn’t diminish his importance as a British artist.
So much of what is currently hailed as innovative either has its roots here, or is simply a crib of this pioneering artist’s work. He was talking about Pop Art long before Andy Warhol ever used the phrase and doing installations before they had a name.
In partnership with the Tate, a second exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (until 6 April) recreates not only two of Hamilton’s large installations, but looks at his ongoing involvement with the ICA in a big archive section. The installations were first produced for the ICA’s Dover Street premises. Man, Machine and Motion (1955) immerses one in over 200 images of man’s fascination with flying clipped onto a steel frame, while the later Exhibit (1957) replaces the photographic images with sheets of Perspex colour.
Hamilton isn’t nearly as well-known as his peers, Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon, but many of his images are: the Beatles’ all-white record cover, with a scrapbook poster insert; the picture of Mick Jagger and friend shading their eyes from the cameras as they are handcuffed for possession of marijuana; JFK peering from an astronaut’s helmet; the sleek lines of a Chrysler, or a photomontage with the impossible title Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? This modern day Adam and Eve, surrounded by domestic appliances, are considered the first Pop Art image, as the musclebound man brandishes a lollipop with the word Pop.
Pop Art is a term Hamilton defined in a letter in 1957 as “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.” Half a century later that still sums up rather a lot of what has followed in the art world.
Walking into one of the galleries I looked around in bewilderment – it all seemed surprisingly kitsch. The pastel green and pink paintings of nymphs by a stream, the lurid sunset over a bay, the gaudy flower arrangements. On closer inspection though, the turds in the foreground or the rolls of toilet paper in others give a different odour to the room. That same juxtaposition is evident in three striking protest oils from the Eighties and Nineties, where a lyrical background contrasts sharply with the political content of the piece. The IRA hunger striker is depicted almost as a Christian martyr and the foul walls of his smeared cell take on a decorative beauty. Tony Blair as a gun-slinging cowboy on the eve of the Iraq war is perhaps less successful.
Hamilton reprised images throughout his career, and white goods track the changes in design over the decades. The earlier images of a stainless steel toaster are repeated near the end as the design is disassembled into its constituent parts. The bland hotel Lobby is recreated into a disorientating play in perspective which includes the viewer in its mirrored image in a 1988 installation. One of his last paintings strips not only the vanishing points but the lady with her vacuum cleaner and places that dismal no-man’s land of the lobby behind her, framed on the wall. In a similar vein, three Renaissance artists peer over a photo-shopped nude, bringing fine art into the vacuous heart of modern life.
Hamilton’s work is perhaps too cerebral to ever have achieved mass popularity and time may prove his work simply gimmicky and easily forgotten, in his own words. Certainly his influences continue to resonate with younger artists and this is an important exhibition to learn where so much of what we see today began.