Art history: it’s just a timeline?

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Before the Easter break, we took a trip up to New College Nottingham to think about ‘modernism’. What a scary word! Using Alfred Barr’s infamous diagram as a starting point, we considered timelines of ‘modernism’ across the 20th Century. More importantly, we wondered what is missing from these canons and how we can challenge accepted histories!


Exhibition review: Richard Hamilton at Tate

Student Ambassador Naomi Graham reveals her thoughts on Tate Modern’s current exhibition about Richard Hamilton…

Throughout his 60 year career, Richard Hamilton (1922-2011) was always one step ahead of the times. Heralded as one of the founding figures of pop art, his attachment to changing culture has made him one of the most significant artists of the 20th century. Tate Modern’s new retrospective is simply titled Richard Hamilton, marking an exhibition that attempts to include all, tackling all the themes and facets of Hamilton’s work. And that is no small task.

Very much a Jack of all media (in the best possible sense), the Tate show celebrates Hamilton’s engagement with everything from oil and watercolour, magazine cut-ups, exhibition design and installation to screenprints and photography. This experimentation was informed by his early involvement with the Independent Group, who also included the likes of Eduardo Paolozzi, Nigel Henderson, Lawrence Alloway and architects Alison and Peter Smithson. The Group met at the Institute of Contemporary Arts between 1952 and 1955 and it was here that Hamilton first introduced mass culture into debates about high art.

As with other blockbuster retrospectives at Tate dealing with long careers, such as the Roy Lichtenstein this time last year, the curation takes a loosely chronological approach. Given that Hamilton’s way of working often moved from one thing to another quite rapidly, the exhibition almost themes itself. At first, specific years are tied neatly together with themes but by the second half the room concepts are broader, reflecting longer periods of time and overarching ideas.

The first room comes as a bit of a surprise, feeling sparse and sterile. There are no gallery labels (shock horror) but it soon becomes clear that this is the recreation of an exhibition curated by Hamilton rather than Tate. With its papier-mâché grids and Ladderax domestic shelving filled with an eclectic mix of bones and shells (some genuine, some created), On Growth and Form from 1951 blurs the lines between art and science and is the first mark of Hamilton’s fascination with the multidisciplinary.

The recreation of the seminal 1956 exhibition This is Tomorrow signals to the Swinging Sixties (or Swingeing Sixties as he called them in a Duchamp-esque pun) before they’ve even happened. Arguably the exhibition reconstructions are the most interesting and effective aspect of the show. They serve to contextualise Hamilton’s work in its original gallery setting (something we often attempt as art historians) while simultaneously highlighting the decontextualisation of the artworks from their original time. For example, the jukebox that blurts out peppy 50s pop music was a part of the everyday in 1956 but for us is one of the ultimate symbols of ‘retro’ and kitsch.

Just what is it that makes today’s home so different, so appealing?, 1956 (Source: Wikipaintings)

As art historians, we are often concerned with pivotal moments: artworks that mark a break from the past or form the catalyst for a new movement or way of working. The original collage of Just what is it that makes today’s home so different, so appealing?, 1956, is too fragile and faded to be featured in the exhibition but has been substituted by a digital print. It is believed to be one of the first pieces of pop art, irreverently bringing together evidence of the modern-day ‘everyday’. In it, an updated Adam and Eve are situated incongruously in a domestic interior made up of various magazine and advertisement cuttings. It is vapid and superficial, just like his time.

In the pop period Hamilton challenged ideas about photography being a ‘true’ reflection of life with images that unpicked the fantasy of celebrity and advertising. As Naomi Klein highlights in her 1999 book No Logo, advertisements do not sell products but lifestyles; they represent the desires and aspirations of a particular age. Collage, with its play on two-dimensionality and three-dimensionality, further enhances ideas of touch and desire. The changing aspirations of the second half of the twentieth century are reduced by Hamilton into a series of commodities. These objects, within the interiors, mark the changing desires of society across the decades.

These methods of appropriating everyday objects and presenting them as high art strongly recall the work of Marcel Duchamp, who greatly influenced Hamilton throughout his career. He had much to do with the cataloguing and installation of The Almost Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp at the Tate in 1966 and was granted permission by Duchamp to make a reconstruction of his Large Glass for the show, as it was too fragile to travel from Philadelphia. The retrospective makes a point of their similarities, especially in their use of mechanical processes.

In the 1970s, Hamilton turned to more scatological themes and Hamilton plays with contrasts in his Flower Piece paintings, which juxtapose ‘glamour and shit’ and, he claims, are an updated memento mori. By the 1980s, Hamilton’s political motivations were channelled somewhat explicitly through his artwork. The reconstruction of Treatment Room, an installation for an Arts Council group exhibition in 1984, is perhaps the most chilling of Hamilton’s works on display.

The installation marks Hamilton’s perception of the shift in British culture after the post-war optimism and hope for a better future was never realised. The cold and clinical interior is a complete reversal of that from Just what is it that makes today’s home so interesting, so appealing? and is a stark contrast to the classical interior that forms the backdrop of Margaret Thatcher’s 1983 Conservative Election Broadcast, which plays on the monitor above the bed. Although some may criticise these works as lacking subtlety, in many ways the can be seen as a natural extension from the brashness of the advertisements Hamilton used in his early collages.

Always hypersensitive to changing times, Hamilton did not shy away from the digital age, fully embracing digital photography and photo manipulation in his later work. In his 1994 show for the Anthony d’Offay Gallery he used computer programmes to paste photographs he had taken of his Oxfordshire home onto images he had of the bare gallery interior.

Now moving towards digital collage, the image is manipulated to appear as if the painting is already hanging. When printed onto canvas and displayed in the Anthony d’Offay Gallery, the viewer would get a double view of the space and its surrounding architecture. Some of this is lost in its display at Tate but the idea of the interior within the interior within the interior still plays out quite well. It also doesn’t stop us making other links between his works. In The Annunciation, 2005, the seated woman speaking on a cordless telephone is perhaps a playful nod to the woman on the (corded) telephone in Just what is it from 1956. Like Duchamp, Hamilton wanted to ‘knock his own ideas out the window’.

Overall, this exhibition allows the viewer to successfully trace the full diversity of Hamilton’s work. You see where ideas came from, how they developed and where they ended up. You move through the times with him, following his dry, sometimes sarcastic, comments on the way things were, are and will be.

Digital art history?!

Today we welcomed students from New College Swindon to The Courtauld for a days workshop on the theme ‘Digital Art History?’. Over the next couple of weeks they will be making Pinterest boards on their chosen artworks from the gallery. But for now, they have summed up today’s research with the ‘tweets’ below. See our live twitter page for some of them too!

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