Books United Kingdom

So much more than the “Father of Pop”

That Richard Hamilton has such a relatively low profile is surely scandalous

Richard Hamilton, I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas, 1967-68

The publication of this book is evidence of a continuing historical and cultural injustice. How could it be that Richard Hamilton is identified by his publishers as “a key figure in 20th-century art” and at the same time be “still little-known in the US”? It is just as alarming that these disjunctive (but, on reflection, hardly contradictory) phrases form the first sentence for this book’s blurb, but, more surprisingly, this work is the only book (rather than an exhibition catalogue) in print on the artist.

Thus it carries quite a burden of expectation, with mixed results. How could a book that collects together texts garnered from magazines and exhibition catalogues satisfy one’s thirst in such a desert of available publications? Yet satisfy it does because of the judicious choice of texts and by the way it suggests how one might view a side of Hamilton that has been emerging since the 1980s—as a history painter engaged in the translation of personally felt moral and political issues, a development seen most recently in the exhibition earlier this year, “Richard Hamilton: Modern Moral Matters” at London’s Serpentine Gallery (a slightly altered version of “Richard Hamilton: Protest Pictures” at Inverleith House two years earlier).

This new view of the artist is signalled by the decision to reproduce Hamilton’s painting of the IRA’s “dirty protest” in the Maze prison, The Citizen, 1982-83, on the book’s front cover. It is a world away from the more commonly accepted view of Hamilton as the “Father of Pop” that might have been communicated, say, by his proto-pop collage of 1956, Just What Is it That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing? The choice of cover image is confirmed by Hal Foster’s essay “Citizen Hamilton” (reprinted from Artforum). Foster’s is the last essay in this book, and makes the identification of Hamilton as history painter most forcefully.

However, it is Mark Francis’s introductory essay from 1988, a text that brilliantly sets the work of the 1980s in context, such as the portrait of Margaret Thatcher, Treatment Room, 1983-84, and The Citizen, and not just alongside earlier works of political hue (Hugh Gaitskell as a Famous Monster of Filmland, 1964), but also with regard to enigmatic paintings such as that of Bing Crosby, I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas, 1967-68, and Hamilton’s long engagement as reader and interpreter of James Joyce.

It is Joyce, as Francis explains, that provides one way of understanding how politics, pop and Hamilton’s long held fascination with the mechanics of making and translating images (not just painting, but also, primarily, photography and other forms of printmaking) co-exist. One clear way is by reference to the Joycean notion of “epiphany”, paraphrased by Hamilton as “a crystallisation of thought that gives us an instant awareness of life’s meaning”, and also by his work of the same name from 1964—a giant-sized presentation of a button badge bearing the words “Slip It To Me”. Epiphany describes a revelation that is by definition personal, and informs all areas of Hamilton’s practice as this book starts to make clear.

The writer is curator of Modern and Contemporary British Art, Tate Britain

Hal Foster with Alex Bacon, Richard Hamilton (MIT Press), 166 pp, £25.96 (hb) ISBN 9780262013819; £13.95 (pb) ISBN 9780262513722

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