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White Gray Black

Richard Hamilton (British, 1922–2011)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

English painter and printmaker. Three different strands of training and experience contributed to his early life and career after being taught briefly by Mark Gertler at Westminster Technical College in 1936: a traditional training at the Royal Academy Schools (1938–40, 1945–6), from which he was eventually expelled ‘for not profiting by the instruction given in the Painting School’; experience in commercial art at the Design Unit (1941–2) and at the record company EMI (1942–5); and an avant-garde, modernist-influenced training at the Slade School of Fine Art (1948–51). These prepared the ground for his subsequent exploration of the means by which received boundaries between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art could be eliminated, in order to examine the relationships between diverse forms of expression, styles and currents of taste normally considered mutually exclusive.

As early as 1948 James Joyce and Marcel Duchamp became major influences on his thinking, first in drawings illustrating Ulysses and subsequently in his Reaper prints (1949–51; see Richard Hamilton: Prints, 1939–83, pp. 23–31). He participated in the discussions of the Independent group concerning popular culture, advertising, the media and mass art (1952–5), and he adapted elements from these forms in developing his distinctive stance. In the exhibition Man, Machine and Motion (U. Newcastle upon Tyne, Hatton Gal., and London, ICA, 1955), which Hamilton devised, he examined ways in which car design made covert statements about status, power and sexuality. These concerns paralleled the semiological analyses of contemporary writers such as Roland Barthes, Umberto Eco and Jean Baudrillard, in which everyday fashions, lifestyles and commodities came to be read as critiques of consumerism, revealing its ethics, its imagination and the way in which it transformed desires, values and expectations into particular styles. Such ideas were among the themes of the collage Just What Is it that Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing? (1956; Tübingen, Ksthalle), which Hamilton produced for the exhibition This Is Tomorrow at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, in 1956. In this domestic interior scene a stereotyped semi-nude couple cut from the pages of mass-circulation magazines disport themselves amid up-to-date accessories of comfortable living. This iconography of modernity, affluence and glamour, while appearing to promise a blissful picture of the forthcoming consumer paradise, is relayed with a questioning and ironic tone that announces the double-edged mode of parody, a characteristic of Pop Art.

In a letter of 1957 Hamilton set himself an aesthetic programme based on a definition of consumerist everyday culture as ‘Popular, Transient, Expendable, Low Cost, Mass Produced, Young, Witty, Sexy, Gimmicky, Glamorous, and Big Business’. In the paintings that followed, such as £he (1958–61; London, Tate) and AAH! (1962; priv. col., see Collected Words, p. 5), excerpts from popular culture are imitated to the letter only the better to depart from their spirit. Media spectacle and advertising mythology are cited and rendered so faithfully that they do not ring true, and a more circumspect, reflective attitude is evoked. The source material is rephrased and filtered through the conventions of fine art, treated with a cool detachment that neither glorified nor derided it. Hamilton’s admiration for the skill that went into the artefacts of popular culture and the pleasure they could afford was tempered by his awareness of their manipulative stereotyping. The ‘ironic affirmation’ of works such as the portrait of Hugh Gaitskell as a Famous Monster of Filmland (1964; AC Eng), painted in oil over an enlarged black and white photograph of the then recently deceased leader of the British Labour party, not only refuted the period’s snobbish dismissal of popular culture but replaced the direct moralizing of satire with a savage humour.

Two lines of stylistic development can be traced in Hamilton’s work after 1964. The first emphasized chance and spontaneity within a conceptual approach inspired by Duchamp and Joyce, as in Epiphany (1964; artist’s priv. col.), a homage to American Pop art conceived as a grossly enlarged badge bearing the message ‘slip it to me’. The assisted or rectified readymade became his principal means of expression, particularly in prints such as People (screenprint, 1968; see Richard Hamilton: Prints, 1939–83, p. 50) and ‘I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas’ (1969; for illustration see Dye Transfer), which were based on photographs retouched by hand in the manner of seaside postcards. The Critic Laughs (1971–2; see Collected Words, p. 73), a sculptural multiple made in part from an electric toothbrush, and Palindrome (1974; see Prints, 1939–83, p. 68), a laminated collotype giving the illusion of three dimensions, both used images to convey ideas, in the first case concerning art criticism and in the second in relation to the ambiguity of visual illusion. Other works such as the Chicago Project Paintings (1969; London, Brit. Council), which were ordered by telephone, dramatized the drive towards risk and randomness.

The second stylistic current after 1964 entailed a sophisticated play with Hamilton’s own and other art idioms—a mannerist tendency involving ‘pictures about pictures’, announced by the screenprint A Little Bit of Roy Lichtenstein (1964; see Prints, 1939–83, p. 42). Another print, Picasso’s Meninas (1973; see Prints, 1939–83, p. 65), elaborated the theme, paying homage to Picasso’s variations of the 1950s on Velázquez’s original through allusions to Picasso’s successive styles. In Horne’s House (1981–2; see Richard Hamilton: Prints, 1939–83, p. 81), based on Joyce’s Oxen of the Sun parodies, depicted characters from Ulysses through a kaleidoscope of styles spanning the history of pictorial representation.

In the series Collaborations of Ch. Rotham (1977), Hamilton and Dieter Roth adopted various stylistic masks and voices: each cited, deliberately misquoted and travestied the other in pairs of pictures on which they both worked. These joint works confounded the normal boundaries between the original work of art and its pastiche, implying that copying was not an aberration of Pop art’s self-confessed plagiarism but the intrinsic condition of all artistic creation: a notion akin to Jacques Derrida’s theories of deconstruction.

From the late 1970s Hamilton’s activity was concentrated largely on investigations of printmaking processes, often in unusual and complex combinations (see Screenprinting, §2 and Lithography, §II, 2(ii)(c)). The deliberation of his working methods, which had always restricted his production as a painter, led to his increasing emphasis on a small number of major canvases painted over a long period. One of the most widely exhibited of these, The Citizen (1982; London, Tate), took as its subject the ‘blanket protest’ of an Irish Republican prisoner in his cell. Divided into two equal sections recalling traditional devotional pictures in diptych form, it contrasts the Christ-like figure of the prisoner in the right-hand panel with an apparently abstract area that describes the cell wall smeared with excrement. While indicating the increased politicization of his work, it thus remains typical of his art in its richly ambiguous multiple readings.

S. C. Maharaj
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press


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