Socialist Worker

Richard Hamilton: a radical pop artist who subverted mass culture

Richard Hamilton, a pioneer of Pop Art, died this month aged 89. Mike Gonzalez looks back at his radical work

Issue No. 2270

“I’m an old fashioned artist,” Richard Hamilton said in an interview in 1990. It was a surprising thing to hear from the artist regarded by many as the leader of the Pop Art movement.

Yet what’s fascinating about him is the fact that he combines both old and new in his hugely varied body of work.

In “My Marilyn”, for example, he puts together a series of photos and negatives of Marilyn Monroe on which she scrawled her own opinions—“good” or a cross.

Hamilton added to the portraits of this most iconic symbol of mass culture his own thoughtfully painted images, reflecting on the photos.

His work often brings together painting and photography, blurring the dividing lines.

Hamilton was fascinated by the modern world, but he didn’t worship it. As a teacher of design, he was excited by the cool elegance and efficiency of the new technology—cars, toasters, computers and television.

Potential

Perhaps in the 1950s he was convinced of its liberating potential—though his early witty collage, “Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?” (1956, above) shows a contemporary living room full to overflowing with things and images.

Its interior is full of objects of consumption—the measures of success or happiness in this new world.

But it is still amusing, an ironic comment on modernity worthy of artist Marcel Duchamp, who he championed.

Hamilton was a radical in his work, and was also active on the left, an early member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and other campaigns.

His ferocious portrait of Hugh Gaitskell as a monster was his reaction to the Labour Party’s decision to keep supporting the nuclear programme.

His most famous picture is of Mick Jagger and his manager photographed in the back of a police car after being arrested for drug possession. It is brightly coloured, in the Pop Art style.

But it is also menacing—a stage perhaps in Hamilton’s growing sense of the menace of the new technology.

Two of his works from the 1980s are directly critical of this new, increasingly controlled society.

“The Citizen” shows an Irish Republican hunger striker in an H-Block, wrapped in his blanket and staring accusingly at those on the

outside. Half of the picture paints the shit-covered cell walls in swirls and patterns.

Human

Two years later “The Treatment Room” showed an operating room with a television on which Margaret Thatcher broadcasts continuously.

The table is empty. It is as if the new technology, for all its liberating potential, had driven out the human presence.

And the series called “Lobby” echoes that idea. Here is a modern hotel, minimalist and angular.

But for all its sophisticated design and apparent openness it is another version of a suffocating interior. The message is about absence—the loss of the human.

And his response to the first Iraq war, “War Games”, shows how the reality of war is veiled or made unreal by a Disneyfied world of toy tanks.

But if the message is sometimes melancholy, Hamilton leaves you always with the vibrancy of the painting.

The presence of the painter means that the works can never close the door on their prisons, real or imagined.


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Tue 20 Sep 2011, 18:04 BST
Issue No. 2270
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