Progression of Art
Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing?
This collage was created by Hamilton for the catalog of the seminal 1956 exhibition at London's Whitechapel Gallery, "This is Tomorrow." The exhibition is now generally recognized as the genesis of Pop art, and as early as 1965 this particular work was described as "the first genuine work of Pop." Within it are a contemporary Adam and Eve, surrounded by the temptations of the post-War consumer boom. Adam is a muscleman covering his groin with a racket-sized lollipop. Eve perches on the couch wearing a lampshade and pasties.
Hamilton used images cut from American magazines. In England, where much of the middle class was still struggling in a slower post-war economy, this crowded space with its state-of-the-art luxuries was a parody of American materialism. In drawing up a list of the image's components, Hamilton pointed to his inclusion of "comics (picture information), words (textual information) [and] tape recording (aural information)." Hamilton is clearly aware of the work of Dada photomontage art, but he's not making an anti-war statement. The tone of his work is lighter. He is poking fun at the materialist fantasies fueled by modern advertisement. This whole collage anticipates bodies of work by future pop artists. The painting on the back wall is essentially a Lichtenstein. The enlarged lollipop is an Oldenburg. The female nude is a Wesselman. The canned ham is a Warhol.
Collage - Kunsthalle Tübingen, Tübingen
Fun House, a collaborative work, was one of the greatest critical successes of the 1956 Whitechapel exhibition, "This is Tomorrow." It is also one of the earliest examples of Pop installation art. The architect John Voelcker created a structure which Hamilton then covered with oversized images from advertising and other popular culture sources. The huge sci-fi robot, with its flashing eyes and grinning switchboard mouth, was taken from a film set. Superimposed on it is the iconic shot of Hollywood film star Marilyn Monroe in a billowing white dress. A large three-dimensional model of a Guinness bottle accompanies these 2-dimensional images. Pop music played loudly from speakers, and a recording of a robotic voice, accompanied the installation, producing an environment of sensory overload, unlike what most of the gallery-going public in England had seen.
Like Hamilton's Just what is it that makes today's homes..., also included in the exhibition, Fun House is an absurd, hedonistic hodgepodge of pop culture sources. Here, however, in place of a domestic cornucopia, an anarchic and potentially sinister mood prevails. Whatever the robot's intentions are for the unconscious woman, they cannot be good. The only quotation from "high art" is a blaring image of sunflowers by Van Gogh, the notoriously mentally unstable genius known for cutting off his own ear.
Hommage à Chrysler Corp.
Though Hamilton was a multi-media artist, the elegant lines of this composition remind us that his way into art was through drawing. His command as a draughtsman underlies the complexity of much of his work, including this one, which at first glance appears to be totally abstract. On closer inspection (yet very hard to see), one can make out the form of a woman with large breasts wearing red lipstick and a fashionable bra leaning over the bonnet of a car. The woman and the car are inseparable, woven together in a single form. This is one of a series of works that examine the visual language of the auto industry, in which the bodies of women and cars are frequently compared. Hamilton highlights the fetishization and conflation of these "objects" in the post-War economy. In its abstraction and in the subject itself, it recalls de Kooning's series of women inspired by cigarette advertisements, which shocked audiences of the early 1950s. The ghost-like lines of the female body in contrast with the definitive graphic presence of the mouth anticipates the work of Tom Wesselman. Whether or not such works condemn or celebrate fetishization is beside the point. Hamilton was picking up on a theme that persists today in auto shows and car advertisements, where scantily-dressed temptresses invite us to try the latest sports car.
Oil paint, metal foil and digital print on wood - Tate Modern, London
Towards a definitive statement on the coming trends in menswear and accessories
While the new visual language of advertising and its objectification of women was well-traversed territory, Hamilton was among the first Pop artists to make hyper-masculinity the subject of his work. Serious and hilarious at the same time, this composite image pokes fun at a range of high and low sources defining modern man in the news. The much-photographed American president John F. Kennedy appears in an abstracted astronaut helmet, a reference to his determination to win the "space race" and be the first to plant a man on the moon. The president and the symbols of his territorial ambition are surrounded by painterly marks and magazine cut-outs that appear to defy gravity, as if suspended in an uncertain orbit. Readers of Playboy would have recognized the phrase "trends in menswear and accessories" as the title of the magazine's fashion column. Hamilton's addition, "Towards a definitive statement," lends a mock-academic tone to the title, as if it were a philosophical treatise, calling attention, perhaps, to the directionless nature of existence, despite the media's relentless push for male decisiveness and domination.
Paint and printed paper on wood - Tate Modern, London
While teaching in Newcastle, Hamilton found on the floor of his classroom a film still from Shockproof, a 1949 movie directed by Douglas Sirk, a German director well-known for his Hollywood melodramas. Hamilton was immediately taken with the careful composition of the image and the atmosphere of foreboding it created, and created this screenprint. Like so many of Hamilton's images, it is comprised of a selection of photographs and advertisements from American magazines. Like Hamilton's earlier collage of an interior, Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing? (1956), it depicts the figure ensconced within a matrix of consumer products, with no space for the eye to rest. The constantly exhausted state within which the consumer exists, despite all these labor-saving devices, is part of Hamilton's overarching message.
Hamilton later described the original film still as "ominous, provocative, ambiguous; a confrontation with which the spectator is familiar yet not at ease." His collage has a similar effect, creating a sort of forced perspective which causes the vanishing point to move depending on where the viewer is focusing their gaze. The vibrant Pop colors of the bottom left provide a strong contrast with the black-and-white photograph of a woman from a fashion plate and the somehow sinister image of long ghostly curtains on the right hand side.
Screenprint on paper - Tate Modern, London
This screenprint is composed of a series of images of Marilyn Monroe that Hamilton discovered soon after her death in 1962. The print is made up of photographic proofs, some of which have been unmercifully crossed out, reproducing markings made by the actress herself with the addition of some painterly brush strokes created by Hamilton. Hamilton discovered that Monroe would always ask to see photographs that were taken of her, and would mark them up to indicate which ones could be used, which could be improved through retouching and which had to be scrapped completely. Hamilton was fascinated by these markings made by the actress, describing them as "brutally and beautifully in conflict with the image."
Moved by Monroe's apparent urge to erase the photographs of herself, Hamilton's work reveals a more personal side to the actress; this version of Monroe is distinctly alien from the colorful, commercial presence summoned by Andy Warhol a couple of years earlier. Hamilton explained his own take on Marilyn's psychology in the following way: "there is a fortuitous narcissism to be seen for the negating cross is also the childish symbol for a kiss; but the violent obliteration of her own image has a self-destructive implication that made her death all the more poignant. My Marilyn starts with her signs and elaborates the possibilities these suggest." The work also reveals a more personal side to Hamilton, and contrasts sharply with the absurdist irony of his earlier images. While on one level the expressive marks are a parody of Abstract Expressionism, the symbolism of this screenprint, and the inclusion of "My" in the title, points to a deeply personal level of autobiographical symbolism. Hamilton's own wife had been killed in an auto accident in 1962, the same year as Marilyn's death.
Screenprint on paper - Tate Modern, London
Cover design for The Beatles' White Album
Richard Hamilton is well-known in some circles for his design for the 1968 album entitled The Beatles, but usually referred to as the "White Album." His design was revolutionary because of its simplicity. In contrast to the overloaded aesthetic of his earlier images, this record sleeve is completely white, and features only the words "The BEATLES" embossed slightly and set typographically off-center. Each album was also stamped with an individual serial number. Hamilton later claimed that he wanted to create "the ironic situation of a numbered edition of something like five million copies."
Hamilton's design contrasts strongly with the exuberantly colorful and busy cover for Sgt. Pepper designed by Hamilton's student, Pop artist Peter Blake. Perhaps because Blake's cover is so deeply inspired by Hamilton (it is much more "Hamiltonesque" than the White Album cover), Hamilton rebelled against his own style, choosing simple lines for the White Album that make it unlike most of the Pop art produced in this era, including Hamilton's other work, and more like Minimalism.
As a limited-edition print circulated to millions of individuals (everyone who owns a copy of this album owns an "original" Richard Hamilton print), however, it is very much in keeping with the democratic aims of the Pop art movement. Apart from being one of the greatest albums of all time, The White Album is a true cross-over between visual and musical culture. It is a work of art and an everyday object that has become part of popular culture in its own right. Through this, Hamilton bridges the gap between art and design, high and low culture, and mass production and individuality.
Album cover - Apple Core, London
Swingeing London 67 (f)
This painting by Hamilton is based on a photograph he found in a newspaper. It shows the Rolling Stones' Mick Jagger and the notorious art dealer Robert Fraser handcuffed together and attempting to hide their faces from the media. The photograph was taken when the pair were being driven to court after they had been arrested and would soon be tried and convicted for drug possession. Fraser's art gallery was the acknowledged center of the swinging '60s scene in London, and was also where many Pop artists such as Hamilton exhibited.
The title plays with the term "Swinging London", frequently used to describe the anything goes experimental mood embraced by Fraser, Jagger, and Hamilton himself, and the "swingeing" punishment settled on by the judge ("swingeing", British slang, means "severe" or "drastic"). The painting demonstrates the fundamental clash between the permissive social culture and the traditional establishment in late 1960s England.
In its use of press photography and its choice of celebrities and criminals, Swingeing London 67 (f) anticipates the work of Gerhard Richter and other conceptual artists who returned to painting in the 1980s and 90s.
Acrylic on canvas - Tate Modern, London