What Made Richard Hamilton So Different, So Appealing?
Richard Hamilton: The Late Works was at the National Gallery, October 10, 2012 to January 13, 2013
“Richard Hamilton: The Late Works” was conceived while its subject, who died in 2011, was still alive. Now, sadly, realized without the artist’s collaboration, the exhibition at the National Gallery is both different from and smaller than what was first envisioned; as curator Christopher Riopelle writes in the catalogue, “The scope of the exhibition [Hamilton] had hoped to mount could not be realized.” As a result, perhaps, this exhibition shows an artist of smaller compass than one remembers, for instance, from his 2010 show at the Serpentine Gallery, which was not a full retrospective but put the accent on the broadly political dimension of his work throughout his career. By contrast, “The Late Works”—something of a misnomer as several of the nineteen pieces shown date from the 1990s or even the ‘80s, though it’s true most were made from 2004 onward—is a selection oriented mostly toward Hamilton’s responses to the great tradition of European painting. There are specific references to masters ranging from Titian and Cranach to Matisse and (Hamilton’s great inspiration) Duchamp; the theme of the Annunciation is prominent. All this makes sense, of course, in the context of the National Gallery. The Saensbury Wing, 1999-2000, whose title is an excruciating pun, depicts the museum’s own Sainsbury Wing (designed by Venturi and Scott Brown), inhabited by a lone female nude, in a pastiche of the style of the Dutch specialist in church interiors Pieter Saenradem—as seen for instance in the National Gallery’s own Interior of the Grote Kerk at Haarlem, 1636-37; deep in the distance one spies hanging on a far wall one of Hamilton’s own greatest works, The Citizen, 1981-83, the depiction of an IRA prisoner at Maze Prison in Northern Ireland.
The inadvertent effect of the exhibition, however, is to show just how far Hamilton could slip from the moral and aesthetic intensity of a painting like The Citizen. Instead, what comes into view here is a rather academic artist preoccupied with a kind of commentary on the achievements of his predecessors rather than on anything like an urgent and unforeseeable synthesis. Nor does Hamilton’s fascination with combining painting with contemporary digital technology save the day; it only adds to the blandness of facture that casts a pall over some of these pieces. And like so many academic painters, Hamilton seems to use the female nude’s status as a culturally blameless motif—if it’s a reference to Titian, then there can’t be anything prurient about it, can there?—as a way to indulge a personal delectation while pretending to a high-minded disinterestedness; it’s not the indulgence that rankles, but the pretense. All the worse, the three final paintings on view, Balzac [a] + [b] + [c], 2011 (printed 2012), the authorized remnants of an unfinished project based on Balzac’s story “The Unknown Masterpiece,” are far from the “profound meditation on art, beauty and desire” that Riopelle pronounces them. They are merely the most naked of the exhibition’s pastiches. In each three versions of the same image, citations of self-portraits by Poussin, Courbet, and Titian are shown as if earnestly discoursing on the seductively recumbent girl with dreamily closed eyes who stretches out so sensually in the foreground; she too is a quotation, from a photograph in the Bibliotheque nationale de France. Academicism says that if you combine great parts, you will make a great whole; but here is one more proof that the result can be much less than the heavy-handed sum of the all-too-obvious parts. What made Hamilton so different, so appealing, was anything but this.