A Modern Man?

Richard Hamilton: The Late Works, National Gallery

It must be slightly galling for those artists who enjoyed success in their formative years to struggle to attain as much critical or popular acclaim later down the line. To be remembered for early, slightly rough and ready pieces of work. Richard Hamilton is one such prodigy who springs to mind: Google his name and the word ‘artist’ and the first piece of work which appears is his iconic 1956 piece Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?  It’s the work of his you’re most likely to recognise, with the buff, nearly naked guy holding a giant lollypop as an extension of his manhood, set within an oddly proportioned, ‘modern’ sitting room. A naked lampshade headed woman with conical breasts reclines on the sofa, whilst another hoovers the staircase wearing a glamorous red dress. Here is 1950’s America at its consumerist, aesthetically stimulating best, and this is the work which has seen critics credit Hamilton with ‘inventing’ Pop Art.

When you contrast that image and moniker with the late artist’s work currently work on display at the National Gallery, you can see that Hamilton was much more than a relic of his youth. The works look familiar as many of the same themes and motifs are on display: the interior architectural space, and the difficulties in perspective which multiple lines can create; the naked female; the repetition and visual playfulness. In these newer works an exploration of art history is also displayed, perhaps instigated by his supposed creation of an art movement which he denied, there is a curiosity here with past masters,

There is no escaping the fact that these works are, literally, visually stunning. The interior spaces are crisp, more perfect than real life; they draw you in and dispend belief. Hamilton’s reliance on Photoshop and digital technology is unmistakable, and would be even to complete technology-phobes. But whilst these works have technical precision in abundance, they appear drab and outdated once viewed in succession. There is little visible feeling, these are largely clean and clinical depictions, the warmth has been digitised out of them. It looks as though the same cold eye has been glanced across, say, a table lamp as a living human form. As a result, the naked female figures cannot be called nudes, Hamilton’s frosty critical appraisal leaves them slightly less than human.

The obsession, and I don’t use the word lightly, with the naked female form seems at once childish and irrelevant, and if considered more deeply is slightly irksome. Balzac, where a naked woman in repose is displayed for the three artistic masters behind her and the viewer in front would no doubt fall into the NG’s categorisation of Hamilton’s ‘theme of…beautiful woman and desire’. It’s a traditional pose, we’re free to stare at her wares as much as we like as the woman in question has her eyes closed, and is therefore seemingly unaware of this intrusion into her privacy. To me, this notion of female beauty and the (often elderly) male desire being projected onto her youthful abundant flesh is like a dirty little artworld secret which should have died out by now, Page 3 being its media equivalent. Yes, young naked women are appealing, but no we don’t need to see yet another one, we don’t need to become the voyeur of youth again despite the link to art history. And whilst we certainly don’t need another man projecting his idealistic view of the female form into the minds of all female viewers, we equally don’t need to see it hung on the wall of a national gallery. I left feeling slightly cold, though impressed with the bathroom tiles.

Richard Hamilton, Balzac (2011)

On display until 13th January 2013.


  1. It reminds me of Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe or Olympia by Edouard Manet. In Le Déjeûner, the men are dressed and the woman is naked and that makes the viewer uncomfortable. I feel the same when I see Hamilton’s work of art.

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