Richard Hamilton: Founding father of Pop Art
While often thought of as an American style, many believe Pop Art actually originated in Britain with Richard Hamilton’s ground-breaking use of advertising images and collage in the 1950s.
The latest exhibition at Sheffield’s Graves Gallery explores his seminal role in defining the movement. It Moves Forward – The Work of Richard Hamilton contains more than 30 works spanning the breadth of his 70-year career.
Man, Machine and Motion is considered one of the earliest examples of Pop Art, preceding Andy Warhol’s famous Campbell’s Soups Cans from 1962.It was first exhibited in 1955 at the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle, the city where Hamilton taught art.
“It’s funny to think a lot of pop art in Britain started in Newcastle,” observes curator Ashley Gallant, Curator (Going Public) at Museums Sheffield.Originally consisting of 200 images illustrating land, sea, air and space travel suspended within frames the surviving panels relate to land and air travel.
He was also innovative in how it could be displayed with the photographic images clipped on to portable steel frames which could be arranged in any way you liked.
“He used found images which were not then appearing in contemporary art and had become part of the Independent Group at the ICA aimed at breaking down barriers between high art in popular culture,”says the curator. “By the early Sixties he was no longer teaching but working full-time as an artist.”
By bringing together such disparate imagery as the pictures of the home, farm machinery and political protests, his work interrogated what an image meant in the 20th century and how, through dissemination and repetition, it could affect how we see the world.
“He challenged us to consider difficult questions, such as: How do images work in the world? How do they manipulate us and us them? What makes an image important?,” continues Gallant.
As a leading figure in the post-war art world Richard Hamilton seemed to know everyone. He had a lifelong friendship with Marcel Duchamp, the pioneer of Dadaism, represented by a poster relating to his exhibition at the Tate in 1966.Because Duchamp’s piece The large Glass was too fragile to move to London to exhibit, Hamilton worked with the artist to recreate the work.
The artists co-signed the work which acknowledged Hamilton’s part in the collaboration.
Other famous artists are referenced such as Picasso’s meninas, an etching that reproduces the composition of the celebrated painting by Diego Velázquez, Las Meniñas, and its figures in the the different graphic styles of Pablo Picasso in various stages of his career.
The Portrait of the Artist by Francis Bacon is based on a photograph of Hamilton taken by his fellow artist which is blurred to resemble Bacon’s style.His fascination with celebrity, media and TV is exemplified by Fashion Plate, a collage of fashion photos in which the face becomes the canvas and the make-up becomes the paint.
My Marilyn is a print derived from photographs of Monroe from a magazine after her death in 1962. The actress vetted shots from photo sessions and we see the crosses through ones she didn’t like which Hamilton reveals how celebrities are not so much exploited but complicit in the projection of their image. The My in the title suggests ownership of a celebrity.
Hamilton designed The Beatles’ White Album, as was requested, in complete contrast to the richly illustrated cover of Sgt Pepper. “It shows the diversity of pop art. Peter Blake took it in one direction, Hamilton’s minimalist sleeve design the complete opposite.”
There are examples of responses to political events such as Desert Storm with a television showing a sandpit with toy tanks to represent army manoeuvres (rather showing than Iraqi casualties)while blood seeps out of the set hinting at the true realities of war.
For Kent State Hamilton produced 5,000 prints of BBC news footage of when state troopers opened fire on student anti-war protesters in 1970. By employing the method of production used for posters and advertising he suggests the repetition of harrowing images becomes part of the political and visual landscape.
The exhibition continues the Going Public series of collaborations with private collections to bring works which would not normally be on show to the public.
“It began with the offer of eight works by John Kirkland, father of Jack Kirkland whose own collection was the subject of the sixth Going Public show in 2017,” explains Ashley Gallant. “We had nine in the city collection so it seemed like a good point to take a look at one of the key people to start pop art in this country.”
It Moves Forward: The Work of Richard Hamilton continues at the Graves Gallery until October 26.