Richard Hamilton: The most influential artist of his generation?

Three new shows dedicated to the playful and provocative work of Richard Hamilton mark him out as the most influential artist of his generation

Posthumous retrospectives are a tricky business. On the one hand, they lack the warm glow that comes with exhibitions of living artists at the end of their career. On the other side, they tend to come too soon for their work to be seen in the proper perspective of time.

One fervently wishes that this doesn’t happen to Richard Hamilton, who died in 2011. For he was a true giant of the postwar, arguably the most influential British artist of his time and certainly one of the finest. If any artist needs a comprehensive survey of his work, it is Hamilton, pioneer of Pop, political agitator, champion  of Duchamp and Dadaism, the great artistic technician of the camera and the computer.

The art establishment has certainly gathered its forces to give him his due. The ICA, with which he was long associated, has an exhibition of two of his early installations.  Tate Modern is holding a comprehensive retrospective, including more than 100 works. And the Alan Cristea Gallery in London is giving a showing to his prints, of which he became a master.

It could be almost too much of a good thing. Not with Hamilton. He had such an inventive mind that, however many works you see, it is always fascinating to follow where he takes you. As with Degas and Picasso, he is for ever searching for something as he picks up his pencil to plan out a work. That thing was a means of representing the modern world in all its technological and consumer brightness, whether it was consumer products, the imagery of personality or the wonders of the digital age.

It’s little wonder that he had such a technological bent. Born in 1922, he’d served as a jig and tool draughtsman (a reserved occupation) during the war and was called up into the Royal Engineers after the war, having been expelled from the Royal Academy Schools then headed by the anti-Modernist, Alfred Munnings.

If he didn’t take to his late call-up, still less to Alfred Munnings, his early art is full of that post-war spirit of new possibilities and new order. Modern design, modern art and modern living were in the air and as a designer and draughtsman he was completely at home with them.

If you are interested in Hamilton’s influences and his bent of mind then you may well be best starting with the ICA’s show of his two installations, Man, Machine and Motion from 1955 and an Exhibit from 1957. The former is a walk through series of blown-up photographs and engravings illustrating the themes of man’s progress in mastering air, sea and land.

The pictures are held precisely in frames of 4x8ft, above your head as well as either side and before you. They display not just Hamilton’s fascination with the mechanical and his concern with precise spatial plotting but also his humour at some of the old engravings of attempted flight (and abduction) and early car drivers with their florid moustaches and goggled outfits.

The second installation is on exactly the same grid pattern only Victor Pasmore at the ICA and the artist Lawrence Alloway had persuaded him to try the whole thing again, this time with abstract sheets of acrylic colour. The idea was to make an exhibition in which the viewer creates his own perspectives as he moves about. Even today, half a century later, it looks entirely modern and intriguing.

Richard Hamilton: The prophet of Pop Art

At the same time as he was doing this he was also combining the advertisements and pictures of the modern world in the first collages of Pop art. Tate Modern has, of course, the 1956  picture, Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?, which set it all off. They have also reconstructed the installation, This Is Tomorrow, Group 2, known at the time as The Fun House, which he made for the Whitechapel exhibition in the same year with John McHale and John Voelcker. It has lost none of its dazzle as the jukebox plays hits from the period and the fragmented walls are covered with pictures and videos from Hollywood and consumer products.

He followed this with a series of pictures in which he took elements of the metallic icons of the age, the Chrysler car and the German toaster, and combined them with paint and  collage to give the sensation of modern life rather than just a representation of it.

Compare the endlessly inventive series,  Hommage à Chrysler Corp from 1957 and Towards a definitive statement on the coming trends in menswear and accessories, a title taken from Playboy magazine, from 1962, with the pictures of his fellow Pop artists of the time and he instantly stands out for his sense of space and concentration. Far more concerned with perspective and less with colour, his paintings keep you at an ironic distance from the object, both admiring but critical.

Not that Hamilton couldn’t be direct when he wanted. His image of Mick Jagger and the gallery owner, Robert Fraser, shielding their faces from the cameras as they are driven off in handcuffs accused of drug offences is justly famous. It combines perfectly the blurred effect of the snatched shot with the sense of a moment. His trilogy of diptychs of painted pictures of a “dirty protester”, the military  and the Orange Order in Northern  Ireland are brittle, brilliant comments on the Troubles there.

When it came to the individuals he held responsible for the decline in society he saw in Britain when the utopian dreams of the  immediate postwar evaporated in the society of “never had it so good”, Hamilton went for the jugular. Portrait of Hugh Gaitskell as a Famous Monster of Filmland, painted in 1964 after Gaitskell had disowned the anti-nuclear  campaign, is brutal in its recomposition of a face as inhuman uncaring.

 The installation, Treatment Room, of  Margaret Thatcher lecturing wordlessly over a crumpled institutional hospital bed is horrific in its soundlessness. His portrayal of a grinning, idiot Tony Blair as a cowboy, Shock and Awe, from 2010, is merciless in its portrayal of the posturing of a would-be war leader.

They are all there in the Tate show, if a little diffused by being made merely part of the  chronology. Where the Tate show is at its best is in showing Hamilton’s constant probing of the possibilities of technology in art. It starts with the drawings of reapers he made in 1949, continues with the abstract and near abstract pictures he made of trees and objects that whizzed by on his train journeys to teach in Newcastle in the early 1950s, takes in the extraordinary series of magnifications of a  photograph of beaches and bathers, the reverse colour image of Bing Crosby, I’m dreaming of a White Christmas, and his homage to Marilyn Monroe, My Marilyn, in the mid-Sixties, and his spatial study of interiors which he developed from the early Sixties to his digital screenprints of the Nineties.

Through it all is his draughtsman’s eye,  calculating what could be done with visual  technology. A rare British champion of  Dadaism, he spent a year re-creating Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors Even (The Large Glass). When  Lichtenstein used a Polaroid camera to photograph him on a visit to New York he developed the idea to produce two volumes of pictures of himself taken by visitors to his studio in an exercise to show how even the simplest shot was shaped by the eye which took it.

In his final pictures, made just before his death and shown at the National Gallery just after it, and named after Balzac’s novella The Unknown Masterpiece, he pictures three great artists of the past, Titian, Poussin and Courbet, looking on at a digitally enhanced photograph of a nude. The portraits of the painters are painterly but it is the realistic figure of the woman which is most artificial. It was his final statement on the picture and perception.

A great artist, although I fear it may yet take another generation before his contribution to art is fully appreciated.

Richard Hamilton, Tate Modern, London SE1 (020 7887 8888) to 26 May; ICA, London SW1 (020 7930 3647) to 6 April; Word and Image, Prints 1963-2007, Alan Cristea Gallery,  London W1 (020 7439 1866 ) to 22 March

Arts and Entertainment
By Seuss! ‘What Pet Shall I Get?’ hits the bookshops this week
Arts and Entertainment
The mushroom cloud over Hiroshima after Enola Gray and her crew dropped the bomb
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Elliott outside his stationery store that houses a Post Office
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Rebecca Ferguson, Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible Rogue Nation

Film review Tom Cruise, 50, is still like a puppy in this relentless action soap opera

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

    I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
    Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

    Margaret Attwood on climate change

    The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

    What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
    Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

    The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

    Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
    Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

    Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

    The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
    Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

    Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

    The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
    Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

    Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

    Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

    Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

    The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
    10 best waterproof mascaras

    Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

    We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
    Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

    Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

    Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
    Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
    Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open
    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'