Pop art is often regarded as an art movement that developed in the late 50s in the US. This is true but it is the British artist Richard Hamilton (1922-2011) who is considered as the founder of pop art. The Tate Modern’s current exhibition shows Richard Hamilton as versatile, humorous, political, pop, abstract, surrealist, and a Duchamp-ion.
A reconstruction of his groundbreaking installation Fun House 1956 is shown in the comprehensive retrospective of Hamilton’s works. A print of his famous collage Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? is also on show; as well as his legendary series Swingeing London. The latter was also exhibited at Barbican’s Pop Art Design.
The Fun House installation was the beginning of Pop art for Richard Hamilton. It was created for the Independent Group’s 1956 exhibition This Is Tomorrow at the Whitechapel Gallery, London. The Independent Group, considered as a precursor to Pop Art, formed at the ICA out of debates on American culture and its influence in Britain. The Independent Group’s Fun House combined smell, sound, and introduced what would later be called op art.
Pop art, often viewed as a response to abstract expressionism, drew on popular culture and was influenced by advertising, everyday life, celebrity as well as comic books and other modern artists in some instances. Hamilton wrote his own definition of Pop Art: it must be popular (designed for a mass audience), transient (short-term solution), expendable (easily forgotten), low cost, mass produced, young (aimed at youth), witty, sexy, gimmicky and glamorous. Hamilton’s most “popular” Pop art works are his series Swingeing London, in which he appropriated and created an iconic image from a newspaper photograph of Mick Jagger handcuffed to art dealer Robert Fraser following their court appearance on drugs charges. His other popular works are derived from well-known brands such as Braun (which he refers to as his Montagne Sainte Victoire in reference to Cézanne) and Guggenheim (if I may label it as a brand).
I had previously drawn a parallel between Pop art and Dadaism (see previous post here) as Pop art and readymades show that everyday objects can provide subject matter for the artist, in my view. Richard Hamilton was infatuated by key Dada figure Marcel Duchamp. He got interested in Duchamp via his Green box (see Tate paper): 94 loose notes in green felt covered boxes on the development and function of his Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors Even. Hamilton curated a Duchamp retrospective at Tate in 1966 and as he couldn’t borrow the Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors Even made in glass, he reconstructed it with Duchamp’s permission.
Overall, I found Richard Hamilton’s Pop art less “obvious” than that from his US counterparts Roy Lichtenstein and Warhol. His creation of iconic images and his use of appropriation bring him close to Pop artists Lichtenstein and Warhol. However, it is the influence of Duchamp that is most prominent in the Tate exhibition, in my view. The Barbican had looked at Duchamp’s influence on subsequent generations of American artists including Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. Hamilton was more interested by Duchamp craft than his readymades, according to Tate curator Mark Godfrey.
The Tate Modern retrospective is on until 26 May and appropriately ends with Hamilton’s last work ‘Untitled’ depicting Poussin, Courbet and Titian. The ICA (as previously mentioned, where the Independent Group first gathered) is showing two recreated installations by Hamilton until April 6.