Richard Hamilton at Tate Modern

Filed in Reviews by on February 19, 2014


Ask most people in Britain to name a famous British artist working in the 20th and 21st centuries and a few names will be mentioned: David Hockney, perhaps, Francis Bacon or Lucian Freud, Damien Hirst or Tracey Emin. But if you ask many of those same people if they have heard of Richard Hamilton, they will either glaze over or, as happened to me in one instance, assume you are talking about the short bloke in Top Gear. And this is a great shame as Hamilton was one of the most gifted, original and influential artists of our times. Hopefully, this exhibition will make his work as well-known as it deserves to be.

Richard Hamilton died in 2011 at the age of 89, after a career spanning more than 60 years. This major retrospective of his life’s work has been a long time coming but it is exceptionally welcome. Hamilton worked in many genres, styles and media and never identified himself exclusively with any of them. He was one of the first artists to work in pop art, and one of the first to leave it behind, having made the points he wished to make. His was a career founded on relentless curiosity, fierce intelligence and powerful imagination. His art examines the very notions of what art is, what it is about and what it should be about. This exhibition should be required viewing for anyone who takes a serious interest in contemporary art.

Hamilton’s career included many collaborations and connections, most famously with Marcel Duchamp. He encouraged David Hockney and Peter Blake at the beginning of their careers, taught Bryan Ferry of Foxy Music fame, designed the cover for The Beatles’ White Album and appeared playing an artist in Robert de Niro’s first movie. Although he left school with no qualifications, he was an extremely talented draughtsman, as many of the works at Tate Modern clearly show. He went on to teach at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and the Royal College of Art.

This is an exhibition of work of such high quality and invention that it is difficult to single out highlights. His best known work, the seminal Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing is there, as is the major fruit of his collaboration with Duchamp, the 1966 replica of The Bride Stripped Bare by Her, Bachelors, even. There are paintings which deconstruct photography and photographs that subvert painting. He shows us new truths about the spuriousness of the glamour associated with celebrity, fashion, advertising and the entertainment industry. There is toilet humour and evidence of an obsessive interest in toasters. His interest in politics –he was active in the CND in the 60’s – is also very apparent, with images of Hugh Gaitskell, Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher each depicted in a manner which is anything but flattering. There are works dealing with the shootings at Kent State University, the dirty protest in Long Kesh in Northern Ireland, maps depicting the degree of Israel’s oppression and domination of Palestine, and images referring to the 1992 Gulf War.

The work of Hamilton’s last years are emotionally cooler and more detached. There is an emphasis on the depiction of physical space, often using the techniques and skills he had acquired as a technical draughtsman in the 1940’s. The seven large scale prints of the interior of his home, each showing a view of another room in the house through a window or doorway, and intended to be shown together in a single gallery space, cause us to query how we view physical space and experience the space we occupy.

Richard Hamilton’s work is thought-provoking, simulating and rewarding, and, happily, this exhibition does it justice. It is well worth a visit.

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John Kavanagh

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John Francis Kavanagh is the founder and editor of Artists Insight.

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