Fifty-five years ago, Richard Hamilton created his work, ‘Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?’ for the historic exhibition, ‘This is Tomorrow’ (Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, August 9 - September 9, 1956).
‘Just What Is It?’ had images cut out from magazines and showed, among others, a naked pin-up woman sitting on a sofa wearing a lampshade and clutching a perky breast; a body builder holding an oversized lollipop; and a plethora of electrical gadgets and household items — all in a living room setting.
Many years later, when asked to describe how the collage came into being, Hamilton revealed: “I was in this habit of making lists. So I wrote down things like, man and woman. Adam and Eve are the pre-requisites. And then I began to add other things like cinema, comics, tape recorder, newspaper, cars, people as a mass rather than as individuals, and domestic appliances, and space... these were then assembled in an interior space.”
The 10.25 inch by 9.75 inch cheeky collage with its riotous and satirical elements became the first work of pop art to achieve an iconic status. It was featured in the exhibition catalogue and in one of the posters for the ‘This is Tomorrow’ exhibition. Over the years, ‘Just What Is It?’ came to be recognised as ‘an icon of early Pop’ and ‘an extraordinary prophecy of the iconography of Pop’.
It was, in fact, Hamilton who created 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.”
Decades later, when he was asked how he felt about ‘Just What Is It?’, he said: “I’m rather bored with it, but it’s a nice little earner!”
The work ran into some controversy in 2006, when John McHale Jr said that his father John McHale Sr had claimed that he (JM Sr) was the creator of the ‘Just What Is It?’ image, and Hamilton’s role was simply “mechanical” cutting out and pasting according to McHale’s design.
Hamilton rejected the claim as absurd. While conceding that McHale Sr had provided him with a rough layout for the ‘This is Tomorrow’ exhibition catalogue, he said that it was he (Hamilton) who had actually created the collage.
When he was 10, Richard saw a notice in the library which advertised art classes. He wanted to join but the classes were for adults and the teacher found him to be too young. The same gentleman had a look at Hamilton’s drawing, was impressed with what he saw and admitted him anyway. “I used to follow him round like a dog,” recalled Hamilton of his teacher. “He was terribly kind to me.”
Before he was 12, Hamilton had decided to become an artist. He became known as an excellent draughtsman, and “by the time I was 14, I was doing big charcoal drawings of the local down and outs.”
When he was 16, he was enrolled at the Royal Academy School but the school closed in 1940 because of the war. He returned to the school in his twenties but found that the Academy had changed completely — for the worse.
His studentship was terminated, and he was dragged “kicking and screaming” to National Service in the Army. It was during his service that he read James Joyce’s Ulysses and was so inspired that he kept his interest alive for the next 50 years, creating his own personal vision of the masterpiece.
If Hamilton idolised Joyce, his admiration for conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp (1887 – 1968) was no less immense. “Duchamp was truly iconoclastic,” he said. “This meant that he denied himself, that he knocked his own ideas out of the window.”
Hamilton became an active member of the famous ‘Independent Group’ of artists, writers and critics who questioned the then prevailing approaches and systems of art. He believed that an artist should be free to do whatever he wanted: “I’ve always relished that possibility. In art, it’s the mind and not the eye that should be active.” For him, a work of art was a vehicle for the transmission of information concerning the mental, or physical, activity of an artist.
Hamilton rose to become an important artist and influential teacher, and represented Great Britain at the 1993 Venice Biennale. He was also honoured with three retrospectives at the Tate, London. All his life, he remained a committed activist; among many others, he supported the ‘Free for All’ campaign against museum entry charges in the late 1990s.
When Hamilton died on September 13 this year, tributes poured in.
Writing his obituary, Jonathan Jones (The Guardian, September 14, 2011) asserted that Hamilton was the most influential British artist of the 20th century, and that in his long, productive life created the most important and enduring works of any British modern painter.
“This may sound a surprising claim,” wrote Jones. “We have our national icons and our pop celebrities. But neither Francis Bacon nor Lucian Freud nor Damien Hirst has shaped modern art as Hamilton did when he put a lolly with the word POP on it in the hand of a muscleman in his 1956 collage, ‘Just What is it that Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?’...
Hamilton saw our future coming. He saw and accepted the way technology changes the human condition. Yet he cared about, and fought for, the human ghost in the machine. That is what makes him a great artist.”
Paying his tribute, Mark Hudson (The Arts Desk, September 14, 2011) recalled how Hamilton’s work was too challenging, too difficult to pin down and how it never told Britain anything it wanted to hear about itself.
“Hamilton was one of the artists who got us where we are today (and if you don’t like where that is, that’s tough)… As an artist and a human being, he never fell back on those great standbys of British culture, coziness and gentility. A friendly and generous man, he was never quite a central figure in the art world, by and large refusing the dead hand of the establishment… He preferred to remain on the sidelines, taking potshots where he could, as he did with his 2007 medal portraying Tony Blair as a reckless gunslinger.
At 89, Hamilton was still a subversive — perhaps the last of his kind.”