Richard Hamilton: The British Roots of Pop Art
On the 13th of September 2011, English painter and collage artist Richard William Hamilton died in London, England. Commonly referred to as ‘the father of pop art’, he began his artistic career attending painting evening classes at Saint Martin’s School of Art, after which he enrolled at the Royal Academy in London. During World War II he worked as a technical draftsman, and re-enrolled at the RA once the war was over. Once expelled from the latter, he spent two years studying at the Slade School of Art at University College London. In 1952, he got introduced to Eduardo Paolozzi and the Independent Group, which consisted of artists, architects, writers, and critics who sought to initiate fresh thinking in art, by exploring the aesthetics and content of forms of popular culture such as advertising, comic books, and movies.
In 1956, Hamilton made a small collage, Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing? which has since become iconic of 1950s British Pop Art. The collage was created for the poster and catalogue of the This is Tomorrow exhibition, which included images from Hollywood cinema, the mass media, and a reproduction of a Van Gogh painting. “The image includes a body-builder and a pin-up girl, television set and tape recorder, Ford emblem and canned ham, comic poster and ancestral portrait, vacuum cleaner and movie-ad, a huge all-day sucker brandished like a tennis racket (and bearing the inscription Pop), and a photo enlargement of a crowded beach, all beneath a ceiling formed by a section of the globe. Like the exhibition itself, this work emerged at a time when the first string of Pop Art in England, the “Independent Group” initiated by sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi and Hamilton himself, had long since disbanded. Nevertheless Hamilton’s collage became the programmatic image of British Pop.” (Ingo F. Walther, Art of the 20th Century, Part 1)
Speaking of his motivation behind creating the collage, Hamilton stated, “The objective here was to throw into the cramped space of a living room some representation of all the objects and ideas crowding into our post-war consciousness. The collage had a didactic role in the context of a didactic exhibition, This is Tomorrow; in that it attempted to summarise the various influences that were beginning to shape post-war Britain.” (Richard Hamilton, Prints and Multiples 1939-2002, Dusseldorf: Richard Verlag, 2002). Long intrigued by Duchamp’s ideas, Hamilton consistently combined elements of popular culture and fine art in his work, seeing both on an equal par as belonging to a unified world of visual communication. “The collage reveals three things: first, a mixture of fascination and irony with respect to the symbols of American affluence; second, the significance of collage as a typical Pop technique, derived from Cubist, Dadaist, and Surrealist practice; and third, the intelligence and sophistication of a composition rife with allusions and ambiguities. These stand in crass contrast to the banality of the theme.” (Walther)
The actual term ‘pop art’ is attributed to Hamilton too. In 1957 Hamilton wrote a note to the brutalist architects Alison and Peter Smithson, who had also contributed to This Is Tomorrow; they were in talks about the idea of another exhibition on similar lines. It was in this note that he coined the phrase pop art. “Pop art,” he wrote, “is Popular (designed for a mass audience), Transient (short-term solution), Expendable (easily forgotten), Low Cost, Mass Produced, Young (aimed at youth), Wicked, Sexy, Gimmicky, Glamorous, Big Business.” It was almost as though he had looked into a crystal ball, and seen Andy Warhol, in his fright wig, staring back at him. But the letter was not intended to be a manifesto. “I just listed the things I thought were most interesting,” says Hamilton. “He [Peter Smithson] didn’t even answer it. When he was asked about it later he denied receiving it.” Just goes to show that most lasting discoveries often come from the most overlooked, incidental references, even in art history, which is generally seen as over-theorised.