“Just what is it that made yesterday’s homes so different, so appealing” (Richard Hamilton, 1956)
Richard William Hamilton (24 February 1922 – 13 September 2011), an English painter and collage artist. His 1955 exhibition Man, Machine and Motion (Hatton Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne) and his 1956 collage, Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?, produced for the This Is Tomorrow exhibition of the Independent Group in London, are considered by critics and historians to be among the earliest works of pop art. A major retrospective of his work was at Tate Modern until May 2014.
(Realización de Javi Álvarez)
Hamilton was born in Pimlico, London. Despite having left school with no formal qualifications, he managed to gain employment as an apprentice working at an electrical components firm, where he discovered an ability for draughtsmanship and began to do painting at evening classes at Saint Martin’s School of Art. This led to his entry into the Royal Academy Schools.
After spending the war working as a technical draftsman, he re-enrolled at the Royal Academy Schools but was later expelled on grounds of “not profiting from the instruction”, loss of his student status forcing Hamilton to carry out National Service. After two years at the Slade School of Art, University College, London, Hamilton began exhibiting his work at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), where he also produced posters and leaflets and teaching at the Central School of Art and Design.
My Marilyn (paste, up), 1965
My Marilyn (1965)
1950s and 1960s
Hamilton’s early work was much influenced by D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s 1917 text On Growth and Form. In 1952, at the first Independent Group meeting, held at the ICA, Hamilton was introduced to Eduardo Paolozzi’s seminal presentation of collages produced in the late 1940s and early 1950s that are now considered to be the first standard bearers of Pop Art. Also in 1952, he was introduced to the Green Box notes of Marcel Duchamp through Roland Penrose, whom Hamilton had met at the ICA. At the ICA, Hamilton was responsible for the design and installation of a number of exhibitions including one on James Joyce and The Wonder and the Horror of the Human Head that was curated by Penrose. It was also through Penrose that Hamilton met Victor Pasmore who gave him a teaching post based in Newcastle Upon Tyne which lasted until 1966. Among the students Hamilton tutored at Newcastle in this period were Rita Donagh, Mark Lancaster, Tim Head, Roxy Music founder Bryan Ferry and Ferry’s visual collaborator Nicholas De Ville. Hamilton’s influence can be found in the visual styling and approach of Roxy Music. He described Ferry as “his greatest creation”.
Hamilton gave a 1959 lecture, “Glorious Technicolor, Breathtaking Cinemascope and Stereophonic Sound”, a phrase taken from a Cole Porter lyric in the 1957 musical Silk Stockings. In that lecture, which sported a pop soundtrack and the demonstration of an early Polaroid camera, Hamilton deconstructed the technology of cinema to explain how it helped to create Hollywood’s allure. He further developed that theme in the early 1960s with a series of paintings inspired by film stills and publicity shots.
The post at the ICA also afforded Hamilton the time to further his research on Duchamp, which resulted in the 1960 publication of a typographic version of Duchamp’s Green Box, which comprised Duchamp’s original notes for the design and construction of his famous work The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, also known as The Large Glass. Hamilton’s 1955 exhibition of paintings at the Hanover Gallery were all in some form a homage to Duchamp. In the same year Hamilton organized the exhibition Man Machine Motion at the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle. Designed to look more like an advertising display than a conventional art exhibition the show prefigured Hamilton’s contribution to the This Is Tomorrow exhibition in London, at the Whitechapel Gallery the following year. Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? was created in 1956 for the catalogue of This Is Tomorrow, where it was reproduced in black and white and also used in posters for the exhibit. The collage depicts a muscle-man provocatively holding a Tootsie Pop and a woman with large, bare breasts wearing a lampshade hat, surrounded by emblems of 1950s affluence from a vacuum cleaner to a large canned ham. Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? is widely acknowledged as one of the first pieces of Pop Art and his written definition of what ‘pop’ is laid the ground for the whole international movement. Hamilton’s definition of Pop Art from a letter to Alison and Peter Smithson dated 16 January 1957 was – “Pop Art is: popular, transient, expendable, low-cost, mass-produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous, and Big Business” – stressing its everyday, commonplace values. He thus created collages incorporating advertisements from mass-circulation newspapers and magazines.
The success of This Is Tomorrow secured Hamilton further teaching assignments in particular at the Royal College of Art from 1957 to 1961, where he promoted David Hockney and Peter Blake. During this period Hamilton was also very active in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and produced a work parodying the then leader of the Labour Party Hugh Gaitskell for rejecting a policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament. In the early 1960s he received a grant from the Arts Council to investigate the condition of the Kurt Schwitters ‘Merzbau’ in Cumbria. The research eventually resulted in Hamilton organising the preservation of the work by relocating it to the Hatton Gallery in the Newcastle University.
In 1962 his first wife Terry was killed in a car crash and in part to recover from this he travelled for the first time to the United States in 1963 for a retrospective of the works of Marcel Duchamp at the Pasadena Art Museum, where, as well as meeting other leading pop artists, he was befriended by Duchamp. Arising from this Hamilton curated the first British retrospective of Duchamp’s work, and his familiarity with The Green Box enabled Hamilton to make copies of The Large Glass and other glass works too fragile to travel. The exhibition was shown at the Tate Gallery in 1966.
In 1968, Hamilton appeared in a Brian De Palma film titled Greetings where Hamilton portrays a pop artist showing a “Blow Up” image. The film was the first film in the United States to receive a X rating and it was also Robert De Niro’s first motion picture.
From the mid-1960s, Hamilton was represented by Robert Fraser and even produced a series of prints Swingeing London based on Fraser’s arrest, along with Mick Jagger, for possession of drugs. This association with the 1960s pop music scene continued as Hamilton became friends with Paul McCartney resulting in him producing the cover design and poster collage for the Beatles’ White Album.
(Richard Hamilton – Exhibition set-up)
Swingeing London 67-poester, 1968
During the 1970s, Richard Hamilton enjoyed international acclaim with a number of major exhibitions being organised of his work. Hamilton had found a new companion in painter Rita Donagh. Together they set about converting North End, a farm in the Oxfordshire countryside, into a home and studios. “By 1970, always fascinated by new technology, Hamilton was redirecting advances in product design into fine art, with the backing of xartcollection, Zurich, a young company that pioneered the production of multiples with the aim of bringing art to a wider audience.” Hamilton realised a series of projects that blurred the boundaries between artwork and product design including a painting that incorporated a state-of-the-art radio receiver and the casing of a Dataindustrier AB computer. During the 1980s Hamilton again voyaged into industrial design and designed two computer exteriors: OHIO computer prototype (for a Swedish firm named Isotron, 1984) and DIAB DS-101 (for Dataindustrier AB, 1986). As part of a television project, 1987 BBC series Painting with Light Hamilton was introduced to the Quantel Paintbox and has since used this or similar devices to produce and modify his work.
From the late 1970s Hamilton’s activity was concentrated largely on investigations of printmaking processes, often in unusual and complex combinations. In 1977-8 Hamilton undertook a series of collaborations with the artist Dieter Roth that also blurred the definitions of the artist as sole author of their work.
In 1992, Richard Hamilton was commissioned by the BBC to recreate his famous art piece, Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing? but only this time, as to what he felt the average household would be like during the 1990s. Instead of the male body builder, he used an accountant working at a desk. Instead of the female icon, he used a world class female body builder.
In 1981 Hamilton began work on a trilogy of paintings based on the conflict in Northern Ireland after watching a television documentary about the “Blanket” protest organized by IRA prisoners in Long Kesh Prison, officially known as The Maze. The citizen (1981–83) shows IRA prisoner Hugh Rooney portrayed as Jesus, with long flowing hair and a beard. Republican prisoners had refused to wear prison uniforms, claiming that they were political prisoners. Prison officers refused to let “the blanket protesters” use the toilets unless they wore prison uniforms. The republican prisoners refused, and instead smeared the excrement on the wall of their cells. Hamilton explained (in the catalogue to his Tate Gallery exhibition, 1992), that he saw the image of “the blanket man as a public relations contrivance of enormous efficacy. It had the moral conviction of a religious icon and the persuasiveness of the advertising man’s dream soap commercial – yet it was a present reality”.[ The subject (1988–89) shows an Orangeman, a member of an order dedicated to preserve Unionism in Northern Ireland. The state (1993) shows a British soldier on a “foot” patrol on a street. The citizen was shown as part of “A Cellular Maze”, a 1983 joint exhibition with Donagh.
From the late 1940s Richard Hamilton was engaged with a project to produce a suite of illustrations for James Joyce’s Ulysses. In 2002, the British Museum staged an exhibition of Hamilton’s illustrations of James Joyce’s Ulysses, entitled Imaging Ulysses. A book of Hamilton’s illustrations was published simultaneously, with text by Stephen Coppel. In the book, Hamilton explained that the idea of illustrating this complex, experimental novel occurred to him when he was doing his National Service in 1947. His first preliminary sketches were made while at the Slade School of Art, and he continued to refine and re-work the images over the next 50 years. Hamilton felt his re-working of the illustrations in many different media had produced a visual effect analogous to Joyce’s verbal techniques. The Ulysses illustrations were subsequently exhibited at the Irish Museum of Modern Art (in Dublin) and the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen (in Rotterdam). The British Museum exhibition coincided with both the 80th anniversary of the publication of Joyce’s novel, and Richard Hamilton’s 80th birthday.
Hamilton died on 13 September 2011, at the age of 89. His work Le chef d’oeuvre inconnu – a painting in three parts, unfinished at his death, comprises a trio of large inkjet prints composed from Photoshop images to visualize the moment of crisis in Balzac’s novel The Unknown Masterpiece.
(Richard Hamilton Serpentine Gallery London 2010)