Richard Hamilton: The Big Daddy of Pop Paint­ing

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The Bri­tish painter and col­lage artist Richard Hamilton (1922 – 2011) was in­ter­ested in pop­u­lar cul­ture and con­tem­po­rary is­sues, in­clud­ing cur­rent pol­i­tics, in­te­ri­ors, ar­chi­tec­ture and de­sign. He was in­spired by ev­ery­day el­e­ments sur­round­ing him; he chal­lenged tra­di­tions and social norms, broke rules and reg­u­la­tions, and over­came ob­sta­cles that stood in his way. He ig­nored the bound­aries be­tween fine art and in­dus­trial de­sign, dis­re­gard­ing artists’ snob­bish at­ti­tude to­wards de­sign, and stressed ev­ery­day com­mon val­ues.

Richard Hamilton was fas­ci­nated with mod­ern tech­nol­ogy and with mass-pro­duced im­ages. He had been ex­posed to this medium early on, as af­ter fin­ish­ing his art stud­ies, he worked in the advertising depart­ment of a com­mer­cial stu­dio. His sly, bit­ing look at con­sumer advertising gave him the pioneer­ing ti­tle Pop artist, or Fa­ther of Pop Art, and later, fondly named The Big Daddy of Pop Paint­ing. There was a preva­lent be­lief that Pop art was an Amer­i­can art move­ment be­cause of prod­ucts like Camp­bell’s soup cans and celebri­ties like Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe. But among the Bri­tish, many con­sider that it started in Eng­land with Richard Hamilton.

The Bri­tish roots of Pop art go back to the In­de­pen­dent Group (IG) that was founded in the early 1950s by Hamilton and a few artists, crit­ics and ar­chi­tects, who were con­cerned with advertising and tech­nol­ogy’s ef­fect on mod­ern art. The IG was study­ing the essence of con­sumer art, which Hamilton de­fined as “pop­u­lar, tran­sient, ex­pend­able, low-cost, masspro­duced, young, witty, sexy, gim­micky, glam­orous and big business.” The IG played a de­ci­sive role in de­vel­op­ing Bri­tish Pop art.

Hamilton had an am­biva­lent feel­ing to­wards U.S. goods flood­ing the Bri­tish mar­ket. On one level, they lured him, but he also showed con­cern about these glit­ter­ing ar­ti­cles. Gen­er­ally though, the nov­el­ties of mod­ern cul­ture ex­cited the IG.

In 1956, the In­de­pen­dent Group set up in Lon­don an ex­hi­bi­tion called “This Is To­mor­row” for which Hamilton made a col­lage, call­ing it Just What is it that Makes To­day’s Homes so Dif­fer­ent, So Ap­peal­ing. It be­came his most fa­mous work, re­ferred to as the ear­li­est Pop art work.

In­spired by printed advertising, this col­lage is con­sid­ered a land­mark in 20th Cen­tury Bri­tish art, as it was prophetic; it had all the char­ac­ter­is­tics of Pop art that came later, such as con­sumer prod­ucts, ads, pin-up girls and comic books. It was a par­ody of Amer­i­can advertising.

The poster is crowded with the lat­est Amer­i­can prod­ucts, on one level play­ful, but also a wor­ried, crit­i­cal look on our age. Hamilton cut pic­tures from mag­a­zines and placed a nude woman ly­ing se­duc­tively on a sofa, and a nude body­builder hold­ing a huge lol­lipop on which is writ­ten in large let­ters the word POP. This word was not seen in art be­fore, lead­ing crit­ics to say he branded the name for the move­ment. The liv­ing room, with ob­jects and com­mer­cials of af­ter-war Amer­i­can lux­u­ries, was a typ­i­cal image of the Pop Move­ment. A woman on the stairs us­ing a vac­uum cleaner, a tape recorder on the floor, a big ham can on the ta­ble and posters and comics strips on the walls, all con­sumer so­ci­ety por­tray­als.

In the 1960s Hamilton saw the work of Mar­cel Duchamp and ad­mired his ready-made art, which di­rected his artis­tic course af­ter the 60s. He de­scribed the found-ob­jects art as “a search for what is epic in ev­ery­day ob­jects and at­ti­tudes”. Duchamp’s in­flu­ence is found in Hamilton’s in­stal­la­tions, like the Braun elec­tric tooth­brush on top of which he placed a set of pink candy teeth, given to him by his son. Ac­tu­ally, Hamilton had a spe­cial ad­mi­ra­tion for the de­signs of Braun prod­ucts, the most cre­ative at the time.

Hamilton felt that since cars have trans­formed our lives so much, they should not be ab­sent from our art. The re­sult was Hom­mage A Chrysler Corp. where the beau­ti­ful curved bumper and head­lights are im­plic­itly com­pared to a fe­male body.

He com­bined Pop art with clas­si­cal paint­ing, as in In­te­rior, where his

com­mer­cial sym­bols and im­pli­ca­tions are ex­e­cuted in a clas­si­cal style. On this sub­ject, he wrote: “I have al­ways been an old-style artist.” Yet, some­times his Pop style sur­passed old tra­di­tions.

Swinge­ing Lon­don is a se­ries of paint­ings taken in 1967 from news­pa­per photographs that show Mick Jag­ger (the Rolling Stones lead singer) with Robert Fraser, the group’s agent, hand­cuffed to­gether in a po­lice car, af­ter their drug ar­rest. The ti­tle of the can­vas is sheer irony. Lobby is de­rived from a post­card of a Berlin ho­tel en­trance, with ex­ces­sive tidi­ness and ab­sence of hu­man pres­ence: a dream place or a night­mare?

In the 1980s, Hamilton be­gan cre­at­ing com­puter-gen­er­ated work, and although re­cep­tive to his time, he still be­lieved that in art, paint­ing would al­ways be more im­por­tant than tech­nol­ogy.

In its obituary of Richard Hamilton, the Guardian news­pa­per de­scribed him as “pas­sion­ately re­spon­sive to his own time”. He gave cur­rent events ‘epic’ im­por­tance.

Hom­mage à Chrysler Corp - 1957

Trafal­gar Square - 1965-7

Lobby - 1985-7

Soft Blue Land­scape - 1976 - 80

Swinge­ing Lon­don 67 (f) - 1968-9

Just what is it that makes to­day's home so dif­fer­ent, so ap­peal­ing - 1991

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