Hamilton's ultimate statement
BY UNHAPPY chance, the exhibition Civil Rights etcat Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane has turned out to be Richard Hamilton’s swansong. He died a week after the opening of the show, in which he shares top billing with his partner, Rita Donagh (they married in 1991).
It’s an intriguing idea, informative of their parallel and overlapping concerns, and the differences of their approaches. Broadly speaking, where Donagh is carefully indirect and analytical in tackling highly-charged subject matter, Hamilton is . . . well, not for nothing is he in the history books as the father of pop art.
He squares up to big, difficult themes, but with a lightness of touch and a sense of humour that never deserted him. He is perhaps best known for a witty collage he made in 1956, Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?, in which a self-absorbed, preening couple occupy a heavily accessorised modernist interior. With its play on consumer culture, and its inclusion of a lollipop labelled “Pop”, the collage anticipated and initiated pop art. But Hamilton was satirising rather than celebrating consumerism, and was never easy with the pop-art tag.
Apart from the interplay between his work and Donagh’s, there’s a recurrent dialogue throughout the exhibition between Hamilton and Andy Warhol. Hamilton happened to be at Kent State University in May 1970 when Ohio national guardsmen opened fire on unarmed student protesters, killing four of them. He screen-printed multiple versions of his own photograph of a student lying injured on the ground. Dean Kahler, the student, he later noted, suffered spinal injuries but survived. Hamilton’s distinctly Warholesque treatment of this horrible scene anticipates the more recent phenomenon of iconic low-resolution images gathered by surveillance cameras.
Swingeing London ’67, another collage of newspaper cuttings, stemmed from the arrest of Mick Jagger and Hamilton’s art dealer, Robert Fraser, on a drugs possession charge. From the mass of media material about the event, Hamilton eventually produced another Warholesque, iconic series of works in various media, A strong sweet smell of incense.The key image depicts Jagger and Fraser, glimpsed through the window of a police van, raising their handcuffed arms to shield their faces.
It’s no insult to note that both Warhol and Hamilton had the instincts of great advertising copywriters and designers. Warhol designed, or at least came up with the concept for, an album cover for The Rolling Stones, Sticky Fingers. But Hamilton had already come up with The White Album for The Beatles. Although uneasy about being described as pop art, he certainly didn’t feel popular culture was beneath him. Part of the job of a modern artist, as he saw it, was to make art that people could understand and consume. And he was always interested in design.
Early on he also saw art as being ideally ephemeral and forgettable. Yet his own work militated against that premise as time went by. There is, to take a case in point, his exceptional interest in Ireland, and Northern Ireland, which looms large in Civil Rights etc. While his Joycean projects are not included in the show, he did have a long-term interest in the writer. It’s also reasonable to presume that Donagh, who he knew from the early 1970s, was an influence in this respect.
Although she was born in England, her Irish roots (Irish mother, Anglo-Irish father) inform Donagh’s work to an exceptional degree, particularly with the outbreak of the Troubles. In fact she deals with the Irish question as an emergent landscape, a mysterious territory to be surveyed and assessed, sometimes literally, as in a series of map-based images, Shadow of the Six Counties.Her schematic treatment of the H-blocks, and of the body of one of the victims of the Dublin bombing lying covered by sheets of newspaper in the street, for example, encapsulate the intrusion of disturbing realities into the idealisations of formal abstraction.
It was a process she was living through herself, and one can see it happening in her work – not least in the way she gradually begins to make an appearance as “the artist” in her paintings, a real, human presence rather than an absent, invisible creator. All of this makes for sobering viewing, and is a useful reminder of the responsibilities of the artist to the happening world. Part of that responsibility relates to the issue of who is in charge. Donagh’s speculative mapping poses the question: who decides on the order that defines the emergent territory? The implication is that we should not accept the given systems and rules at face value. She is quietly persuasive in dealing with all of this.
THAT HAMILTON SHOULDturn to tackle the distinctly unfashionable subject of Northern Ireland is surely an indication of his remarkable independence of thought. “By chance in 1980,” he wrote in 1983, “I was struck by a scene in a TV documentary about republican prisoners in the H-blocks.” Seeing footage of men “on the blanket”, he felt not repugnance but immediately grasped the “mythic power” of the protest, “a strange image of human dignity in the midst of self- created squalor.”
The Citizen, a large-scale painting of a Christ-like prisoner developed directly from the TV images, takes its title from Joyce’s Ulysses. Eventually, by the early-1990s, the work had grown into a Northern Ireland triptych, including The Subject, featuring a ceremoniously attired Orangeman, and The State, represented by a wary British infantryman on patrol in a wet northern street. Hamilton’s clear transposition of the news image of a hunger striker into a mythic and religious archetype is, it has to be said, a bit heavy-handed, but it reflects a truth about the way events were represented and perceived from the differing cultural perspectives, and is a remarkable achievement on the part of an English artist looking at Ireland from outside.
Other works display his sharp sense of humour and his enduring commitment to deal with contemporary realities. His installation Treatment Roomputs the viewer in the wretched position of being harangued non-stop by Margaret Thatcher. Shock and Awefeatures a digitally amended image of Tony Blair as a gunslinger, one of several pieces to address both Iraq wars. More lightly, Free the South Kensington 3features a brilliant series of posters devised by Hamilton for a campaign against museum charges. Under the heading “Drop the charges”, he features images of Raphael, Darwin and Leonardo behind bars. It’s one of the touches that make this show a fitting memorial to a great artist.
Civil Rights etc, a retrospective of the work of Rita Donagh and Richard Hamilton, until January 15, Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane, Charlemont House, Parnell Square North, Tues-Thurs 10am-6pm, Fri-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun 11am-5pm 01-8741903