Richard Hamilton at Tate Modern and ICA
Coco Chanel once said that to be irreplaceable one must always be different. Her style, ironically, remained the same throughout her career, and led to her being sidelined by the time of her death – but one can find more truth in the aphorism if one applies it to Richard Hamilton.
Any half-way talented pasticheur could do Freud, Bacon or Hockney, but the Hamilton style remains elusive, perhaps because he had more an attitude or manner than any easily recognised tricks. To mangle Kundera, who said that subject determines form, one can say that with Hamilton subject determines style: hence pop is handled through collage, his artistically self-conscious looks at art history engage, with a collagist’s sense of magpie-ing garishly on display with the edges of digital technology, while his political paintings are oil on canvas productions. Even there is a tension opening on an ambiguity between traditional artistic notions of style and subject.
Consider, if only because it is the most famous, The Citizen 1981-3. Paintwork is flat, blocky, with light from a blurred newspaper picture or some piece of psychedelic hagiography. It is charged uneasily to both high drama and banality. Hamilton toys with the dilettante, and the “culture” as the piece’s original setting in mock excreta lined space; more about the viewer, both passive and participator, than it is about the man in the cell.
His political work comes off best in the show, as much of his early pop lacks anything truly distinctive about it. Hamilton is at his worst when he is bemused and cool – his 90s reworking, retitled Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different? is more interesting than the original because a strain of anger runs through it. Treatment Room, 1983-4, is one of the best political works to come out of the 80s, in part because like The Citizen one feels a personal empathy that makes spectatorship so uncomfortable. Some of his work has faded and will, if not be treated as prentice work (he has stayed abreast of everything), then at least be handled by history as filler before his later political pieces.
Photos: Monika Jorgesen
Richard Hamilton is at Tate Modern until 26th May 2014. For further information visit the gallery’s website here.