Socialist Worker

Richard Hamilton’s Protest Pictures keep the shame of repression in our minds

Kathleen Sherry takes a look at a retrospective exhibition of artist Richard Hamilton’s political work

Issue No. 2119

Shock and Awe 2007-2008. Inkjet print on Hewlett-Packard Premium canvas 2000x1000cm (Pic: © Richard Hamilton)

Shock and Awe 2007-2008. Inkjet print on Hewlett-Packard Premium canvas 2000x1000cm (Pic: © Richard Hamilton)

Richard Hamilton’s Protest Pictures exhibition at Inverleith House in Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Gardens contains a body of work spanning over four decades.

It includes paintings, prints, collages and an installation.

Hamilton is best known as one of the founders of British Pop Art.

His most famous works are iconic pieces such as his 1956 collage Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?, often cited as the first piece of pop art, or his somewhat less complex design for The Beatles’ White Album cover sleeve.

This exhibition, however, is concerned only with his explicitly political work, and so it clearly reveals the theme of protest which runs through his whole career.

The exhibition begins with the Swingeing London series.

This is a roomful of paintings and prints based on the 1967 newspaper photograph of Mick Jagger and art dealer Robert Fraser handcuffed in the back of a police car after being arrested for drug possession.

This case typified the authorities’ moral backlash against the radicalism of the 1960s, representing an obvious effort by the state to punish and publicly humiliate the icons of a youth culture it regarded as subversive.

Hamilton’s deconstruction of the image draws attention to the handcuffs on the men as they try to shield their faces from the camera.

This helps bring out his theme of the power of the state versus the individual.


Another striking piece which continues this theme is Treatment Room, an installation created by Hamilton for an Arts Council travelling exhibition in 1983. It consists of a bare hospital bed with only a standard issue red blanket.

Above it, instead of an X-ray screen, there is a large TV, which is playing Margaret Thatcher’s 1983 Conservative Party broadcast on a loop, muted.

It is emitting its own form of radiation with the screen spouting the Thatcherite agenda of privatisation, anti-union laws and warmongering to the captive “patient” below.

This chilling vision of institutional control and political propaganda was a result of the mood of depression resulting from the unfulfilled dreams and aspirations of the post-war boom.

As Hamilton put it, “a complete polarity becomes evident between the brash expectations of the fifties and the present consciousness of depression”.

At this time Hamilton was working on a trilogy of paintings on Northern Ireland, with each divided into two sections. These are also on display.

The citizen (1982-3) shows an IRA prisoner from 1978 wearing a prison blanket, while the left hand side of the picture focuses on his “dirty” protest smeared across the walls.

This was three years before the hunger strikes against the Thatcher government in which ten prisoners died.

The citizen is placed between the two other paintings in the series.

The subject shows a member of the Orange Order beside a blurry night time scene of what looks like a riot in progress. The state shows a British paratrooper enforcing control.

There is also a room devoted to Hamilton’s Kent State series.

This was provoked by the US National Guardsmen killing four peaceful demonstrators at Kent University in May 1970 as they protested against the invasion of Cambodia during the Vietnam War.


The print series was made using photographs of TV footage of the demonstration which Hamilton, having had his camera set up in front of a television for a week, had taken unexpectedly during a news broadcast.

His clear sense of purpose in exposing this act of state brutality is shown in his comments about the work:

“It was too terrible an incident in American history to submit to arty treatment. Yet there it was in my hand, by chance. It seemed right, too, that art could help to keep the shame in our minds.”

In 1964 Hamilton painted a portait of Hugh Gaitskell, the Labour leader who turned the party against a non-nuclear defence policy.

Hamilton, an advocate of nuclear disarmament and a Labour supporter, shows Gaitskell mutating into a monster with a fusion of various Hollywood villains layered over his face.

Hamilton shows how politicians’ warmongering has continued with War Games, a painting of a TV still from the first Gulf War which has blood dripping from the TV set.

Next to the Gaitskell portrait is Shock and Awe, completed only a few months ago.

This has Tony Blair in a gunslinger outfit, holding pistols in both hands and wearing cowboy boots, with oil fires in the background.

It shows that although now aged 86 Hamilton has lost none of his ability to launch biting attacks on the state. A celebration of inspired protest, this exhibition is definitely worth a visit.

Richard Hamilton: Protest Pictures is on at Inverleith House, Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh until 12 October.

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Tue 16 Sep 2008, 18:05 BST
Issue No. 2119
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