Review: Richard Hamilton retrospective

Written by Antonello Sticca on 5 March 2014 in Culture
Pop politics: Antonello Sticca takes in a retrospective on pop art pioneer Richard Hamilton

The Tate Modern is hosting an exhibition of work by Richard Hamilton, an artist considered by many to be the founding figure of pop art. Hamilton enjoyed a long career, and this exhibition gathers together his paintings, photography, innovative works, television-based pieces, and his engagement with other artists.

Most striking are the ways in which his art relates to the world of politics.

There’s the the fantastic Portrait of Hugh Gaitskell as a Famous Monster of Filmland, a work intended to be more ‘pop’ that actually political. Hugh Gaitskell, at the time leader of the Labour party, opposed the campaign for unilateral nuclear disarmament supported by the rest of the party, so Hamilton enlarged a press photo of the politician to create a hybrid painting that draws upon images from horror films and pulp fiction by portraying Gaitskell as a Hollywood monster with one fish eyeball and a mawkish mouth.

 Tony Blair is given a similar treatment in the well-known Shock and Awe painting. The former PM is decked out in wild west attire, with Hamilton clearly drawing attention to Blair’s decision to send troops into Iraq on the grounds that the country concealed weapons of mass destruction.

 Another interesting piece is the Treatment room, in which Hamilton suggests that patients could be cured by watching Margaret Thatcher from a screen. – It takes the form of an installation representing a bleak room in a hospital, with the social and stark installation based on the power of surveillance (the monitor reminds the viewer of CCTV cameras in public spaces) and indoctrination (the patient cured by the image of the leader). First unveiled in 1992, the installation was an immediate response to the assault on the NHS by the government.

 The most popular image by Hamilton has to be The Citizen, which is based on a still from a 1980 news report about the IRA ‘dirty protest’. Denied the status of political prisoners, inmates in Northern Ireland’s Maze prison decided to wear only prison blankets and spread their cell walls with excrements. This painting is part of a triptych, each presenting an image of the troubles in Northern Ireland.

The Citizen is mirrored by The Subject, which depicts a parading loyalist Orangeman. In this case the subject is someone who accepts the rule of the British monarch – the opposite of a republican citizen.

The third piece is The State, a painting in which a soldier patrols the streets of Northern Ireland. In Hamilton’s painting, the soldier is walking backwards, perhaps as a symbol of Britain’s wish to withdraw its troops from Northern Ireland.

Richard Hamilton installations at the ICA, London, 12 Feb-6 April

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