The comprehensive Richard Hamilton retrospective at Tate Modern (13 February to 26 May 2014) is, I think, something of a surprise. I usually think that Hamilton’s work suffers when it is shown in museum surveys of modern art: the worked smoothness of the surface, the range of media (various print technologies) and what seemed like quotations of more visceral painting styles, often feels overly-laboured and intellectually cool compared to the bravura displays of painterly panache of work contemporaneous with Hamilton’s. However much you felt that the labouring and the quotations were part of the point, it still felt that there were swirls of mist floating between viewer and painting compared to the more emphatic and immediate paintwork of Hamilton’s contemporary Magda Cordell (and you can go and search out a fantastic Cordell painting in Tate Modern after the Hamilton show). But seen all together some of Hamilton’s work looks great with their trademark micro-splodges and smears seemingly not just referring back to abstract expressionism but forward to a sort of ruinous waste infecting the surface of the modern.
The scatological is a major theme in Hamilton’s work and one of his most famous works is The Citizen which depicts the dirty protest of IRA prisoners held in the Maze prison. Brian Sewell has declared this “one of the very few great paintings in the history of British art in the later 20th century”, an evaluation that, no doubt, Hamilton would have been proud of, yet how would he have felt about such an assessment coming from the pen of someone whose unworried connoisseurialism was precisely what Hamilton and his colleagues in the Independent Group fought against?
The scatological is also foregrounded in one of the most successful rooms in the exhibition: ‘Shit and Flowers’. The title seems like a provocation, and on first flush the paintings of luscious sunsets illuminating large, healthy turds looks like the joke of a punky A-level student. Yet when seen beside the re-worked adverts of Andrex toilet tissues we get to see this as part of an anthropology of the contemporary: we live in a world were nature is incessantly praised as long as it doesn’t include the nature of our evacuations; we are seduced to buy toilet paper with promises of beautiful women and unspoilt woods as long as we can’t imagine such women having a shit. In a conversation with Michael Craig-Martin, Hamilton told him: “As a student I learned by imitating, I was a persistent pasticheur”. While pastiche doesn’t always get a great press, Hamilton reveals its analytic power. I would take undergraduate media studies students to see this show because the analysis of advertising is more powerful, more cutting, than any of the standard textbooks on “how to analyse an advert”.
One of the true finds in this exhibition, for me at least, didn’t occur in the exhibition itself but in the exhibition book shop. Here you can buy a catalogue produced for Richard Hamilton’s exhibition at the British Pavilion in the Venice Biennale of 1993. The catalogue is written by Sarat Maharaj who at the time had been working on a monograph on Hamilton. The monograph, unfortunately, never appeared and this is perhaps the closest you get to it. It is, as many would expect, intellectual and analytic, but the big surprise is just how funny it is. On the back page is an advert for an invented conference on Hamilton’s work. At the bottom is a detachable slip for sending off for more information about the symposium. It also alerts you to the fact that there are “concession rates if you book an all-round superb-value ‘Avant-garde in Venice’ excursion. Arrive at the Hamilton show by water taxi!” I wonder how many people sent off for more information, or did try and book for the excursion?