Brave new worlds

In the final extract from his 'History of British Art', Andrew Graham-Dixon looks at Pop, an act of homage to the post-war era
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
In 1957 Richard Hamilton wrote a letter proposing the desiderata of a new art. He wrote: "Pop art is Popular (designed for a mass audience), Transient (short-term solution), Expendable (easily forgotten), Low cost, Mass produced, Young (aimed at youth), Witty, Sexy, Gimmicky, Glamorous and Big business." A year earlier, Hamilton had created the first instance of what he believed such an art might look like, a collage to which he gave the title Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing? It has become one of the defining images of the dreams and aspirations of an era, a wry homage to the forces that were about to transform post-war Britain into a consumer society.

The stripper and her friend the muscle-man inhabit a split-level flat in the fashionable centre of town. They are amid a cornucopia of mass-manufactured objects of desire. The lampshade is emblazoned with the Ford Motor Company logo; there is a massive tin of Del Monte ham on the table; on the wall is a framed cover of Young Romance magazine; a television set stands in the corner; a reel-to-reel tape recorder is open on the floor. Just what is it... is a picture of a world of possibilities, an Eden of consumer durables inhabited by the Adam and Eve of a new mass culture. But Hamilton's collage is as much satire as celebration of a future that was yet to arrive in Britain. It is a prophecy laced with irony, an anatomy of bright conformity in which the artist has discerned early symptoms of a media- and market-driven late 20th-century species of conformism. Hamilton shows us a world where all are encouraged to dream the same dream of material satisfaction and to divert themselves with the same diversions. Andy Warhol, the affectless apostle of American Pop art, once remarked, "I want everyone to think alike... Russia is doing it under government. It's happening here all by itself..." He was right, but Hamilton had already seen it coming.

Pop art was unusual, in the history of 20th-century art movements, in that it was born twice, each time in a different place. The twins were not identical. American Pop artists created the dumbest, grandest icons of art in the 1960s: Andy Warhol's multiple Marilyns and Elvises; Roy Lichtenstein's Whaam!, that comic-book dogfight on the scale of a 19th- century history painting; James Rosenquist's F-111, that vast horizontal jet-plane of a painting, a dizzying, filmic collage of 20th- century imagery. But in the post-war Britain of the tightened belt and the ration book - the world of Spam not Whaam! - artists' attitudes to the consumer paradise of the future were touched with a mixture of longing and diffidence.

Peter Blake made a belated British attempt to achieve the blatancy of American Pop art in his painting but produced an art of quaintness and fairground nostalgia instead. Richard Hamilton's work is exemplary of British Pop, reined-in and therefore not really Pop (in Hamilton's first sense, namely "Popular") at all. His later paintings, works such as Hommage a Chrysler Corp and AAH! are visually dull but conceptually intriguing works of art. A low-toned imagery that combines elements of the female anatomy with elements of automotive design has been put to the service of cultural analysis. Hamilton's art does not surrender to the sex appeal of cars but attempts to dissect and understand it. It is, in fact, yet another expression of the British impulse to view the world through the sardonic eyes of the realist.

Pop, in Hamilton's sense of the word, never truly came to pass in art, only in popular music. Certain forms of visual self-expression - convulsive, violent, hallucinogenic, disorientating, subversive - could not flourish in the world of fine art in Britain so they took the form of rock music instead. Britain did not produce Salvador Dali, but David Bowie. Britain did not produce Dadaism, but the Sex Pistols.

Rock music, which is an extremely visual medium, catholically combining sound and spectacle and a degree of ritualistic devotion, is the strongest contemporary expression of that old British desire to escape from puritanical restraints and restrictions. Although fine artists in Britain have in general behaved with less abandon than rock stars, a few have incarnated this desire in their art. Their careers have been more like the careers of non musicians than artists, beginning in a blaze of publicity and almost immediately fading away into a mild remembered notoriety.

In the mid-1960s Bridget Riley created a series of dizzying, optically buzzing and humming geometrical abstract pictures. Made out of patterns and orders of design that sway and heave and swell, her pictures practise a subversive, narcotic disorientation of the senses upon the viewer. Riley's motifs were quickly appropriated by the fashion industry, turned into dress designs, and converted into the status of Modern Classics. Christened Op art, Riley's was really Pop: "Sexy, Gimmicky, Glamorous". Riley has never surpassed her early pictures and they remain some of the more moving abstract works of the later 20th century.

Between 1960 and 1962 the only other true British Pop artist, David Hockney, created some of the most sensuous, exuberant and unbuttoned painting seen in Britain since the Second World War. The young Hockney brought a coarseness, a vigour and a passion to all that he touched. In his youth he was clearly much moved by the rich, spontaneous, tactile qualities of American Abstract Expressionist painting. He also drew on that strain of modern European art, inaugurated by Picasso and continued by Jean Dubuffet in Paris during the 1940s and after, which aimed to inject the spontaneity of children's art into grown-up painting. Hockney's first paintings are touchingly naked in an almost childish way, because they speak so plainly and blurtingly of his loves and preoccupations: The Third Love Painting is a dream of a penis (or penises in general) transmuted into thin, scrawled, almost inchoate paint; Doll Boy portrays a nameless beloved youth rendered as a toothy diagrammatic figure wearing a white shift, his head bowed beneath the weight of a great red shape like a human heart.

Many of his sources of inspiration lay in London, particularly the walls of London, smudged and stained, bearing graffitied messages of sudden, transient poignancy, which became the templates for his own wall-like paintings of awkward confession. What Hockney was confessing to was his homosexuality. The two doll boys whose forms and faces are mashed against one another in We Two Boys Together Clinging make a bold erotic emblem of the painter's sexual desire. Hockney's mistake was to leave Britain in 1963 for the warmer and more sexually tolerant climate of Los Angeles - a move to realise in life the desires implicit in his art that proved fatal to his painting.

Finding peace and a form of satiation in California, Hockney soon subsided into a painter of lotus-eating blandness. As Los Angeles's icon- maker, Hockney homed in on its distinctive features with uncanny, numb accuracy: the blankly reflective sheet glass of its pool-side architecture; the rippling surface of its swimming pools; its tall, inconsequential palms, presiding over a place where nothing, nothing at all, seems to be going on. The apogee of his Californian art (and it is an apogee reached painfully early on) is that incarnation of vapid, sunstruck melancholy, The Bigger Splash. Painted by an artist who no longer seems fully present in his work, it is appropriately a picture of someone who is no longer there, the diver who, springing off the board, has left only his splashy residue, a flurry of white painterly scribble.

n Andrew Graham-Dixon's BBC2 series concludes this Sunday at 7.15pm. His 'History of British Art' is published by BBC Books at pounds 25 (copies can be ordered, post free, from 01624 675137)