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Portrait of Hugh Gaitskell as a Famous Monster of Filmland 1964 (detail) © 2009 Richard Hamilton

Richard Hamilton:

Modern Moral Matters at the Serpentine Gallery


by Anna Leung

In his guise as “the big daddy of Pop” (Richard Cork, Everything Seemed Possible: Art in the 1970’s, Yale University Press, 2003) Richard Hamilton’s contribution to the British art scene though initially socially and anthropologically biased was not pointedly political. Whilst much has been made of British Pop as a resistance movement that was anti-Establishment in its effort to create a cultural break, it was also optimistic, seeing itself as a precursor of a new open society, and more importantly affirmative in its celebration of popular culture. It is true that to the purveyors of high culture Pop’s incorporation of imagery from the mass media, and specifically from the American pop culture of comic strips and commercial ads, represented a flouting of humanist conventions of beauty. But for Hamilton such an appropriation of vulgar, vernacular imagery constituted an attempt by the fine artist that he was to rescue a contemporary equivalent of, say, Ingres’ Odalisque from the Playboy Playmate of the Month, arguing that girlie pictures “have references to fine art sources as well as Pop.”  This affirmative stance has proved somewhat problematic to generations of art historians and critics accustomed, like Clement Greenberg, to equating avant-garde aesthetics with critical leftist politics. In the British art world of the 1950s, to be both pro-left and pro-American seemed a contradiction in terms. Pop effectively overturned the avant-garde’s traditional attitude towards the status quo by celebrating consumerism not berating it, and likewise cultivating kitsch not condemning it. This affirmative stance gave credence to those who accused Pop of reinforcing the status quo and colluding with capitalism.


This enthusiasm for all things American among the contingent of young British post-war artists who were to make up the Independent Group makes sense if viewed against the background of post war austerity: well into the Fifties, Britain was still dominated by the ration book and presented an uncomfortable contrast with the US’s cold war politics of economic abundance based on planned obsolescence and expendability. But it is important to point out that America was no longer Fordist, i.e. in the grips of the first Machine Age.  The America that Hamilton and contemporaries such as Eduardo Paolozzi enthused over was the America of a second machine age pursuing an aesthetic of expendability through design and technology that was premised not on need but on desire. For Hamilton the machine represented a new mythic force; he saw the artist as assimilating to fine art this collective dream world of advertising imagery. And it was Hamilton who came up with a “table of characteristics of Pop Art” in a letter of 1957:

Popular (designed for a mass audience)

Transient (short term solution)

Expendable (easily forgotten)

Low cost,

Mass produced

Young (aimed at youth)





Big Business

It is important to stress that the reference to the term “Pop Art” in this context was not to actual Pop paintings - Pop Art was something still to come - but to the source material to be appropriated from visual mass culture for future Pop paintings, and Hamilton was quick to recognize that Warhol ticked all the right boxes. Hamilton’s own paintings do not, and he would not have wanted them to do so, especially with regard to expendability, which he saw as ‘a self defeating goal’. If in subsequent paintings such as Hommage a Chrysler Corps(1957; not in this exhibition) he endows automobile design with explicit erotic elements he does so in a fastidious, almost academic manner. There is little of the overt gimmicky glamour associated with in-your-face ads, and if the painting is subtly transgressive it is in order to make us think. Richard Hamilton is a cerebral artist who, with Duchamp in mind, describes his paintings as “ironism of affirmation.” He stands out in the fifties, a time when the British art scene was dominated by a strong subjective element, whether inscribed in Graham Sutherland’s dark and macabre landscapes or gestured in Bacon’s existentialist anguish poised between paroxysms of pain and pleasure. Even the realist ‘kitchen sink’ artists were not exempt from a strong dose of introspection. Hamilton, by contrast, was notable for his coolness and objectivity and for his adoption of an almost illustrational type of figuration based on photography that marked a strong contrast with the improvisatory or gestural informal abstraction characteristic of the time. It was this interrogation of pop culture, i.e. low rather than high, and its semiotic language and its subsequent integration into fine art that marked Hamilton out as being ahead of his time. His paintings signalled a paradigm shift that was to make mass media and popular culture, rather than direct experience of the natural world (including human nature), the main source of high art practices in the sixties.

Richard Hamilton Swingeing London 67 (f) 1968–69, Screen-print on canvas

 acrylic and collage 67 x 85 cm Courtesy of Tate, London © 2010 Richard Hamilton

Richard Hamilton was born in Pimlico, London in 1922 into a working class family. At the age of twelve he smuggled himself into an adult education evening art class.  Two years later he was so proficient at drawing that he was recommended to the Keeper of the Royal Academy School and secured a place for when he was sixteen, attending the life class at St Martins in the meantime. From 1938 to 1940 he was a student at the Royal Academy but since he was too young to be conscripted was sent by the Labour Exchange to study engineering draughtsmanship at a Government Training Centre when the art school was closed because of the outbreak of war. This kept him out of the army and in 1946 he returned to the Royal Academy.  A new regime under the vehemently anti-modernist artist Sir Alfred Munnings was not to Hamilton’s taste and he was soon expelled; consequently, he became eligible for military service but eventually gained a place at the Slade where it counted as a badge of honour to have been expelled from the Royal Academy School. It was here that he came into contact with the work and ideas of his foremost mentor, Marcel Duchamp – in 1965 he reconstructed Duchamp’s Large Glass. Two books had an abiding influence on him, D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s On Growth and Form and Siegfried Giedon’s Mechanisation Takes Command. The first dealt with natural form and morphology, the second with technological form and process. His paintings at that time were predominantly abstract, using point and line to articulate the canvas’s flat surface. From the first it was ideas that dominated and determined style. After graduating Hamilton taught for thirteen years at King’s College, Newcastle upon Tyne but was also involved in a whole series of innovative exhibitions. Growth and Form at the ICA for the Festival of Britain already demonstrated his preoccupation with technical devices and the degree to which they determine how an image is to be interpreted. Man, Machine and Motion, also at the ICA, represented a recapitulation of Futurist and Expressionist ideas and demonstrated how machines could extend the power of the human body. Finally in 1956 he co-organised This is Tomorrow at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. It was for the frontispiece of the exhibition catalogue and the poster that Hamilton created his most famous collage Just what is it the makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?  Anticipating the two main preoccupations of the sixties, this exhibition, based explicitly on the collaboration between architects, painters and sculptors, focused on the juxtapositioning of admass imagery and the ambiguities of perception, both of which were already central to Hamilton’s thinking of art as predominantly the communication of ideas.



Hamilton was both assiduous and sophisticated in his search for the correct image and its placement within the permutations of his compositions, and to this degree can be considered “academic,” as in this sense is his mentor Duchamp. As Hamilton says, “Anything I respect in art is for its ideas rather than for its handling or any other quality.” Nevertheless, “handling” in terms of a variety of techniques is vital to his working practice and also translates a fundamental understanding of reality as the essentially ambiguous grounding of our appraisal of events. The basic idea is that mass media informs popular apprehension of current and historical events. This is where politics and our “modern morality” come in. Each project that Hamilton takes up is subjected to an analytic process that in most cases, but not all, requires prolonged research and study. As in pre-modern academic painting a narrative context precedes any artistic image making. There is little room for spontaneity. The many different permutations of an image are carefully calibrated. Hamilton’s training at the Royal Academy and time spent as an engineering draughtsman were not wasted and Hamilton has remained loyal to his artistic origins. Since 1956 all of Hamilton’s work has been made up of composite elements which are then refined into a unified scheme. While recognising that painting is composed of marks on a flat surface and in this way announces its autonomy, Hamilton often plays with different styles and different perspectives in one painting. Illusionistic areas abut diagrammatic elements, paint overlays photographic material (often taken from press cuttings) or relief constructions and vice versa. All these techniques are visible in the series Swingeing London 67(1968-9) and the Portrait of Hugh Gaitskell (1964).


The first room in this exhibition is given over to Swingeing London so that it’s possible for us to see all the many variables involved in developing an idea from straight documentary to a much more stylized rendering of its subject matter. In February 1967 the police had raided the home of Rolling Stone Keith Richards, and Mick Jagger and Hamilton’s art dealer Robert Fraser were charged with the possession of unlawful drugs. Fraser was sentenced to six months imprisonment, Jagger’s sentence was commuted to a twelve month conditional discharge. The source of Hamilton’s image was taken by a Daily Mail photographer as seen through the window of a police van taking them, and other prisoners, to Chichester Court House. The tabloids were full of irrelevant information such as the colour of Jagger’s jacket, which Hamilton reproduced in the Poster print. The original series of six was worked on from an initial water colour into an etching, one of Hamilton’s preferred mediums, and a screen print on to which were added passages of oil paint, embossing and collage. In terms of imagery the emphasis was on the two sets of hands that denote freedom or rather the restraints on freedom in a society that professed to support excessive individuality. The title of the series refers to the swingeing sentences imposed. Hamilton’s sympathies were definitely with the victims of the legislation against drugs and he returned to this series to produce a print for Release, an organisation that gave legal aid to individuals most of whom were involved in drug related offences. He also helped organise an exhibition in support of Fraser during his imprisonment.


The catalyst for the Portrait of Hugh Gaitskell as a Famous Monster of Filmland (1964) was the assumption by some critics that Hamilton’s paintings were satirical in intent. Since this was not the case Hamilton decided to experiment with subject matter that was pointedly satirically and came up with a hate figure in Gaitskell, the leader of the Labour party and of the opposition from 1955 to his death in 1963. Gaitskell, who in general elections had twice lost to the Tories, blamed the left for Labour’s failure at the polls and anticipated in many ways the more recent right wing turn in New Labour. However, Hamilton’s anger was chiefly motivated by Gaitskell’s refusal to add his support to Labour’s calls for the unilateral disarmament of Britain’s nuclear weaponry. This earned the artist’s total disapproval and resulted in a portrait engendered by the morphing of a press photo of Gaitskell with an image of the phantom of the opera and other filmic science fiction monsters. Henceforth Hamilton’s paintings and prints were to take on a signal political character. Whether they are directly about politics or about the communication of political ideas or even about art’s ability to convey political matters is a moot point.

Richard Hamilton, Unorthodox Rendition (2009-2010) from

This fusing of reality and fantasy in the Gaitskell portrait indicates the direction that Hamilton’s future work would subsequently take. Virtually all of the works in this exhibition, whether based on press photographs or TV footage, have an iconic quality that transcends their political actuality while at the same time questioning their political veracity. Take the series of diptychs based on the troubles in Northern Ireland. The Citizen is based on the IRA hunger strikers and their blanket protest while in solitary confinement at the Maze Prison. The image of the solitary prisoner exerts a mythic power in the midst of his squalor. In addition it seems to possess an extraordinary iconic quality that endows him with a Christ-like semblance, not humbled but unyielding in his hold on the righteousness of the IRA cause. The excrement daubed on the walls of his cell parodies abstract expressionist gestural brush work and the rusted frames of the diptych are suggestive of the cells that confine his person. Titles are important in this series. The Citizen refers to the IRA prisoner’s total rejection of British sovereignty over Northern Ireland while The Subject declares the Orangeman’s recognition of UK Rule and The State features a British soldier on patrol. Behind him a neon sign for Spuds and Coca-Cola indicate the support given by the US to the IRA. The image of the student Dean Kahler, gunned down at the anti-Vietnam demonstration at Kent State (1970) has none of this viscerality. Taken directly from TV footage of the demonstration on the university campus the screen print image is sepulchral and seems to fade with each reprint reminding us perhaps how repetition can weaken rather than strengthen the impact of a tragedy communicated through the mass media.


Three works take us into our own time. The Treatment Room (1982-84) is the only installation in the exhibition and figures a silenced Mrs Thatcher mouthing out her last speech to the Conservative conference in 83 from a TV above a hospital bed which indicates the patient by an empty blanket –  is the assumption that the patient (= the NHS) is now a corpse?  Shock and Awe (2007-8), a more than life-sized portrait of a gun toting Blair, is also given an iconic dimension. But rather than enhancing his persona, the image diminishes him by suggesting that he has stepped into the wrong school stage performance. He is the one that looks overawed by what he has irretrievably set into motion. Maps of Palestine (2009-10) contrast the Palestine of 1947 when a partition into two states was first broached under the auspices of the UN. The Israelis accepted but the Palestinians did not and conflict has continued to ravage the region where three faiths meet, the contemporary map demonstrating how the Palestinians’ territory has been eroded. Unorthodox Rendition (2009-10) which was only just completed for the exhibition continues with this theme. It is a portrait of the Israeli nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu who breached the secrecy code of the Israeli government and revealed Israel’s covert nuclear policy. His hand, pressed against the window, represents freedom and the loss of freedom as the vehicle speeds him away into years of solitary confinement, his face becoming more and more indistinct.


All these works seem to have a pretty overt political message, reminding many of us of what we already know. It is almost too easy to gauge Hamilton’s personal response but one can’t help feeling that something more subtle and more deconstructive is at stake. What this is exactly eludes me and this elusiveness is perhaps part of the fabric of his Duchampian methodologies. It is equally pertinent to remember that Hamilton designated Pop the “son of Dada,” and Dada excelled in cut and paste as an attempt to rearrange the world. Although this is a worthy exhibition, I cannot help wondering about a certain loss over time of the wit, glamour, and  sexiness that Hamilton first isolated as the vocabulary of Pop and that initially gave it a certain energy as well as a critical edge.


The exhibition Richard Hamilton: Modern Moral Matters was at the Serpentine Gallery in London from 3 March - 25 April, 2010.

© Anna Leung 2010

Anna Leung is a London-based artist and educator now semi-retired from teaching at Birkbeck College but taking occasional informal groups to current art exhibitions.

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