From British daily The Morning Star
Serpentine Gallery, London W2
Friday 19 March 2010
by Susan Darlington
Unusually for an artist of his generation Richard Hamilton has always looked outward rather than inward.
Born in 1922, he rebelled early in his life against the dominant aesthetics of his youth which stressed rarified introspection.
Hamilton has always been fascinated by political, cultural and social change and the ways in which technology has altered our understanding of the world through fast-changing forms of representation.
Sophisticated advertising and marketing techniques, colour photography and film, industrial printing, television and, recently, digital media have transformed the visual environment.
Not only has the mass media threatened to drown us in its seductive superficiality, it now rivals the artist’s traditional means of representation through brush, pencil and paint.
Refusing to retreat from this all-pervasive assault, Hamilton confronted mass imagery by making it the subject matter of his work, so pioneering British Pop Art in the 1950s.
He employed a wide variety of media, ranging from traditional drawing, painting and print-making to those used by commercial designers and film-makers to interrogate, satirise and expose mass media’s visual languages.
And as a man of the left he has periodically engaged with moral or political issues. From his satirical works about Hugh Gaitskell begun in 1963 through his series in the ’80s and ’90s about the British occupation of Northern Ireland to this year’s Maps of Palestine he has taken an anti-war and anti-imperialist stance.
This exhibition focuses on these works and Treatment Room (1983-4) is one of the strongest. Unusually for Hamilton this is an installation – an impersonal room lit by strip lights recalls a hospital treatment room, complete with sink in the corner. A treatment table appears to have clinical equipment suspended directly above it.
But far from being diagnostic or curative, it turns out to be an instrument of torture: a television monitor endlessly loops video of Margaret Thatcher delivering a carefully staged speech. There is no escape. We are metaphorically her victim, pinned to the treatment table, relentlessly enduring her hectoring hypocrisy.
Made during her first attacks on the welfare state the installation’s raw emotional power continues to resonate.
But as Hamilton has acknowledged “political or moral motivation is hard to handle for an artist” – the difficulty is to make the work reveal truths about injustice, state violence and oppression which transgress the specific circumstances which it confronts, since these are destined to lose their significance over time.
During my visit a group of bemused teenagers gazed at the images of Hugh Gaitskell as a monster and, having no idea who he was, they attempted to respond aesthetically to the work.
A combination of film stills from the magazine Famous Monsters Of Filmland along with newsprint photographs of Gaitskell create prints and paintings which convey the idea of a monstrous person. But its political meanings are now lost to new generations.
In some works Hamilton’s fascination with the technology of mass communication dominates and the subject matter becomes elusive.
This is the case with his response to events in 1970 at Kent State University, where the US army used live ammunition against anti-Vietnam demonstrators. Shocked by the tragedy, Hamilton was also interested in the ways in which technology had transmuted the events into news images.
Filmed on a cine camera, they were processed and transmitted by satellite to Britain where Hamilton photographed them from his television.
But some of the screen prints of an injured student which he made from these became so abstracted that the original subject is virtually unrecognisable. More direct are his recent large-scale works in which digitally manipulated images are printed onto canvas. Shock And Awe (2007-8, above) is a life-size image of Tony Blair dressed as a cowboy about to pull two guns on us as the fires of destruction rage behind him.
Hamilton’s output is characterised by his questioning of the “how” rather than the “what” of mass media mediations of our understanding of the world. This may well be his most enduring contribution.
That is as valid a political comment as direct engagement with specific political issues. And Hamilton’s continuing commitment to social and political justice is indeed heartening.
On show until April 25. Admission free.