British Pop Art has recently been showing a resurgence in popularity. As international audiences and auction houses have recognised the relatively untapped wealth of importance and value respectively, the predecessors to the likes of Warhol, Lichtenstein, Johns and Rauschenberg have been granted greater exposure in shows such as ‘When Britain went Pop!’ and ‘Pop Art to Britart’. It seems only fitting then that, the so-called “father of pop art”, Richard Hamilton, has been given a major retrospective at the Tate Modern.
Hamilton was a prolific artist who experimented in various media, constantly revisiting, revising and reworking themes throughout his career. Reading the show’s introductory panel it is clear that these manifold manifestations of Hamilton’s art, from “paintings, prints, and polaroids alongside his exhibition designs and installations”, are all present. Installations are noticeably prominent. You enter through a reconstituted version of Hamilton’s 1951 show at the ICA Growth and Form, and the early highlight is Hamilton’s Fun House from the seminal ‘This is Tomorrow’ exhibition. It is in this space that Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? appears, somewhat shyly, its paltry dimensions dwarfed by the image of Charlton Heston’s Moses, taken from the film ‘The Ten Commandments’. The power of Hamilton’s installations is reconfirmed by Treatment Room, a deeply political work that depicts the late Margaret Thatcher in all her patronising glory, but also somewhat weakened by the discordant room given over to Hamilton’s copy of Duchamp’s The Large Glass. To me, Hamilton is strongest when he is at his most original, and thus the slavish admiration of Duchamp doesn’t appeal.
In comparison his works that appropriate items from the mass media are resonantly powerful. His use of Braun toasters, renamed ‘Brown’, are a good antidote for those sick with the seemingly omnipresent Campbell’s soup tins, and his Richard ash trays and bottles, made in the same font as the French liquor Ricard, are witty antecedents to Gavin Turk’s Turkeyfoil that I found so appealing at ‘Pop Art to Britart’.
To me, as a previous International Relations student, Hamilton’s political works are his strongest. Tony Blair as a gun slinging cowboy in Shock and Awe still remains a withering portrayal of a Prime Minister whose reputation is becoming more and more divisive with time. The slight smirk perfectly captures the character of Blair: self-assured, occasionally blurring into arrogance. Hamilton’s Portrait of Hugh Gaitskell as a Famous Monster of Filmland from 1964, a spiky character-assassination of the former Labour leader, who was against unilateral nuclear disarmament, demonstrates his engagement with the political throughout his career.
Posthumous retrospectives are notoriously difficult to pull off. They lack the celebratory note of those given to artists at the end of their career and having them too close to the artist’s passing risks not fully understanding the importance and impact of their work. The Tate team have dealt with both these issues with typical mastery, delivering an exhibition fit for the standing of its subject.
Harry Laughland is an MA student at the Courtauld.
Richard Hamilton is at Tate Modern until the 26th May 2014.