Richard Hamilton: The shock of the nude

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

The late Richard Hamilton's final works are on display at the National Gallery. The unmissable show is the perfect tribute to a great experimental artist, says Adrian Hamilton

In the last year of his life, the artist Richard Hamilton was preparing a final major work.

The painting, based on a short story by Balzac, "The Unknown Masterpiece", about the search for artistic perfection, would encompass all his feelings about the perfection of beauty in the female nude, the possibilities of technology and the impossibility of total realism. As it was, conscious in his final weeks that he would not be able to complete it, he allowed the National Gallery to incorporate three of his Photoshop studies in a show of his works he was already planning with them.

The result, Richard Hamilton: the Late Works, now on display in the light-filled Sunley Room of the NG, is a wonderful tribute to this great artist who died in September of last year, aged 89. It is not the show that the artist precisely intended. It is certainly not the grand retrospective now being planned by Tate Modern in association with other galleries around the world, scheduled for next year. But in its way it is the most appropriate tribute to an artist who never stopped experimenting or engaging with the public world about him right until the end.

The story on which the "Balzac" triptych (the three studies are shown side by side) is based is the classic one of the artist's reach for the unattainable. In it, Balzac tells the tale of a great artist who declares that he is painting a portrait of a nude so perfect that it will be as real as reality itself. His artist friends gather, only to look on a picture of daubs and inchoate splashes in which only a bit of a foot in the corner seems real. Overwhelmed by his failure, the artist dies, having destroyed all his works.

It is the ultimate romantic story of art taken up by the most literate and most technically proficient of modern artists. His intention had been to compose a picture, using computer graphics and a photograph of a 19th-century nude, which he would then paint showing the incomparability of paint in delineating the human form, but adding in a separate photograph of a model's foot as the one unpainted part. One can only speculate, and sense the loss, of the final picture as it might have been painted.

As it is, we have three digital images of the composition printed on canvas. The nude is there, perfect in shape and skin tones, calculated precisely according to ideals of beauty. She languishes, sure of herself, but divorced from the gathering around her of three artists representing youth (Poussin), middle age (Courbet) and old age (Titian), each a commanding figure reproduced from their self- portraits. The nude is perfect in her symmetry but unreal in her glassy, digital skin, photographically exact but artistically artificial.

It is a theme that draws together the Balzac works and the others on display in this exhibition. As concepts, Hamilton saw them quite separately. But no artist compartmentalises his creative ambition that clearly, particularly in his later years when the need to draw together the strands of a life and lessons learned becomes more pressing.

Hamilton's original thought had been to make the National Gallery show a counterpoint to his more fiercely direct show of political art at the Serpentine, the Modern Moral Matters of two years ago. It was a wonderful and surprising exhibition, proving that the old boy had lost none of his political anger as he portrayed Tony Blair as a cinematic cowboy and Israel's settlement grab of Palestinian land through the eye of a map.

The NG exhibition, in contrast, is cool and almost academic, dealing with the issues of space and perspective, beauty and the imagery of art history, in which he was well versed. Hamilton had worked as a draughtsman for machine tools during the war and took to computer graphics and 3D simulation like a duck to water. The results, some Photoshop prints on canvas, others touched up or half-painted in oils, are works that are at once hyper-realistic in their surfaces but otherworldly in their depiction of space.

You can ascribe the presence of nudes in so many of his pictures to the voyeuristic obsessions of old men and some may find his depiction of the Annunciation with a naked girl on the mobile somewhat shocking. But their intention is far from salacious. They are much more a concern with beauty as portrayed through the classical nude that runs throughout Western art, reinvented in this case with photographic exactitude.

His major point of reference in his later years, as in his earlier career, was the French Dadaist, Marcel Duchamp. His nudes directly acknowledge his idol's works. Descending Nude (2006) is modelled on Duchamp's famous Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 just as a fascinatingly complex study of reflections in The Passage of the Bride from 1998-9 refers back to Duchamp's The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) of 1915-23, which Hamilton himself had reconstructed.

But then Hamilton applies this imagery to something both very old and very modern, which is the examination of space using the Renaissance elaboration of perspective. In his digital print, Chiara & Chair (2004), the perspective is spelt out in lines so that the viewer is made aware not just of a view of a naked lady vacuuming the floor of a living room but the view from the other end, with the added layer of the presence of Hamilton's own picture Lobby from 1985-7 hanging on the wall.

Lobby is indeed an eerie masterpiece of complex perspective in which the eye is caught both by the emptiness of the room, the soullessness of its reflecting glass and the puzzle of its staircases. It is easy in describing these works to make them sound intellectual and referential. They are that. But Hamilton was a master of effect. In imitating Fra Angelico's porticoed loggia in The Passage of the Angel to the Virgin (2007) and the Dutch 17th-century painter, Pieter Saenredam in his cathedral-like depiction of the Sainsbury Wing (The Saensbury Wing) from 1999-2000, complete with minuscule nude in the foreground and his own painting of the Northern Irish troubles as an altarpiece in the far end, he created magisterial works of both immediacy and ambiguity.

One wishes he had finished his last major work. But in its stead we have this fresh and vibrant show of one of the most influential artists of the post war as he reached his end, still pushing the possibilities of art. Not to be missed. And it's free.

Richard Hamilton: the Late Works, National Gallery, London WC2 (020 7747 2885) to 13 January

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

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

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker