Pop Art, it turns out, is a British invention. If up to now you always thought that this gaudy and consumerist movement was ’ like Bruce Springsteen ’ born in the USA, I recommend a prompt visit to Tate Modern, whose current Richard Hamilton retrospective will put you right.
Hamilton had a dominant influence on British art in the second half of the 20th century. In 1952, he was one of a small group of artists, including Eduardo Paolozzi, to found the Independent Group at London’s Institute of Contemporary Art - sowing the first seeds of what was to become known as Pop Art. This exhibition showcases the astonishing range of subjects, media and techniques Hamilton deployed in an influential career spanning more than 60 years. This is the first time that his 2D artwork has been exhibited alongside his exhibition designs and installations, mixing drawings, paintings, collage, sculpture, interiors, photography and film.
The show opens with a reconstruction of ‘Growth and Form’, one of Hamilton’s earliest exhibitions from 1951, the year before the founding of the Independent Group. A far cry from the in-your-face, colourful, emblazoned slogans of popular culture, the installation reminds us of the Surrealist and Dada roots of the Pop Art movement. It takes the form of a cabinet of curiosities of sorts constructed with organic, skeletal and grid structures, with a colour scheme of charred black and bone white. The influence of these movements is apparent later in the exhibition through the body of work Hamilton produced in homage to his idol Marcel Duchamp, including his copy of ‘The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even’ (or ‘Large Glass’).
Hamilton’s fascination with pattern and structure, and delight in the methodical deconstruction of them, is evident throughout the exhibition. He was trained as a technical engineering draughtsman during the war, and applied this entrenched meticulous attention to detail to all avenues of his artistic creation. One painting series presents fixed-point perspectives taken from the artist’s regular train journeys; another set of prints scrutinises the mechanical structure of a reaper, recalling Futurist, Vorticist and Constructivist influences.
Of course, despite conceiving the movement, British Pop artists responded from the outset to popular mass culture Stateside - the Americans did it bigger, brighter, and for some, better. One step removed, and emerging from austerity, the post-war British were watching and responding to America, warping and glamorising it in the process.
It is not long before visitors are rewarded with some shining paragons of Pop. A major coup for the exhibition is a full-scale reconstruction of the ‘Fun House’ interactive installation, from the landmark ‘This is Tomorrow’ collaborative exhibition of 1956. The assemblage includes a set of immersive ‘contemporary’ rooms which visitors can walk through. Nearby hangs the famous ‘tabular’ collage produced for the catalogue, ‘Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing’’ which shows Hamilton’s interpretation of a contemporary modern interior (a recurrent theme of his) complete with a lollipop inscribed with the word ‘POP’. Other classic Pop pieces include collages of female nudes morphing into the curvaceous chassis of an American-style car, ‘Hommage à Chrysler Corp.’ (1957), or even a coveted Braun toaster, ‘$he’ (1958-61), a motif he revisited in 1967.
As the show progresses, Hamilton’s increasing engagement with political dialogues of the second half of the century becomes evident. Not one to shy from controversial subjects, his political commentary pieces range from ‘Portrait of Hugh Gaitskell as a Famous Monster of Filmland’ (1963) to multi-media explorations on the subject of the Kent State shootings, ‘Kent State’ (1970); IRA ‘dirty protests’, ‘The Citizen’ (1981’3); Margaret Thatcher, ‘Treatment Room’ (1984); and Tony Blair, Shock and Awe (2010). Much has already been written about Hamilton’s politically-charged works, or ‘modern history paintings’, on which the Serpentine Gallery recently held a focus, ‘Modern Moral Matters’ in 2010.
Hamilton’s interest in current affairs also extends to the cult of celebrity, here represented by works such as ‘Swingeing London 67’ (1968-9) based on a newspaper photograph of a handcuffed Mick Jagger, and ‘My Marilyn’ (1965), a reproduction of a contact sheet from a Marilyn Monroe shoot, scribbled over by the star in what Hamilton described as a ‘violent obliteration of her own image’.
Surveying the decades of work in this exhibition, visitors are exposed to Hamilton’s restless experimentation with materials and ideas, and his adaptability to the rapidly changing socio-political and cultural landscape of modern Britain in the mid-to-late 20th century. This goes some way to explain his keenness for artistic collaborations; creating something unexpected and new by throwing another ego into the mix.
One such project which stood out for its clarity of vision and effectiveness was ‘Polaroid Portraits’, a wall of 128 snapshots of Hamilton taken by his artist friends from 1968 to 2001. The list of these ‘guest’ collaborators reads like a roll-call of the artistic greats of the 20th century, including Man Ray, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Andy Warhol, Francis Bacon, Joseph Beuys and Gerhard Richter. Roy Lichtenstein took the first picture; designer Bruce Mau, took the last. Extending across a large proportion of his career, this piece serves as a photographic biography of the artist through the eyes of those who knew him best. It is a fitting tribute to an artist whose impact extended not only throughout the British art scene, but shaped his generation of artists across the world too. This alone would be justification enough for a retrospective exhibition such as this.
 The installation pays tribute to D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s seminal book On Growth and Form (1917) that describes the process by which patterns are formed in the natural world.