Friday, 2 November 2012

Richard Hamilton: the Late Works – National Gallery, London

To enter the world of Richard Hamilton’s late works is to enter a self-contained closed world of reflections and mirrored fragments. Endlessly self-referential, works reappear in other works, which themselves refer back to yet other works. To view them is to participate in a post-modern game through art history. And it is a thoroughly enjoyable game to play.

The first works we see are paintings where the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing has been transformed into a vast cathedral, sparsely populated by female nudes and tiny reproductions of earlier Hamilton works. These two paintings (The Saensbury Wing (1999-2000) and Charity), like many in the exhibition, reference a painting in the National’s collection, Pieter Saenredam’s The Interior of the Grote Kerk at Haarlem (1636-37). And with these paintings we are introduced to all of the main themes of the exhibition: interiors, paintings in the National Gallery, the female nude and other works of Richard Hamilton.

In Lobby (1985-87) a hotel lobby is painted with unwavering verisimilitude, the planes within fragmented by carefully rendered mirrored surfaces. It is a meticulously measured photo-realistic painting. The only ‘painterly’ marks are to be found on the flowers in the foreground and the painted paintings reflected in the two large mirrored columns. Lobby reappears in a later work, Hotel du Rhone (2005), where it hangs prominently on a wall in a digitally rendered collage of a hotel room being hoovered by a naked chambermaid. The contents and layout of the room bring to mind Hamilton’s most celebrated image, probably the most famous collage in art history, Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing? (1956).

Other than Lobby and The Saensbury Wing not many of these works could be described simply as paintings, although Hamilton did refer to them as such. They are mostly digital mash-ups incorporating elements of painting, collage and photography and finally printed onto canvas.

Hamilton’s nudes are always beautiful young women and it is in two more of these nudes that we find the final preoccupation of this exhibition, and a major preoccupation of Hamilton’s career. Descending Nude (2006) shows the same woman four times, three times reflected in a mirror walking down a flight of stairs, and the fourth facing the mirror. In The Passage of the Bride (1998-99) the female nude is reflected in the glass of a section of Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915-23), otherwise known as The Large Glass, which is seen hanging on the wall of another domestic interior. In the nineteen sixties Hamilton played an important role in the rehabilitation of Duchamp’s reputation in the art world, not least by remaking many of Duchamp’s works and bringing them to a new and wider audience. Duchamp blessed this project, even going so far, in typically Duchampian manner, as to sign Hamilton’s versions of his work. Another Duchampian aspect to Hamilton’s work is the delight he takes in replicating his own work on a smaller scale, as in Duchamp’s Box in a Valise (1935-41).

The clumsiest aspect of Hamilton’s work on show here are the titles, bad puns and unsubtle allusions, as if he hasn’t got the confidence in his audiences ability to ‘get’ the references. And one or two of the works are considerably weaker than others. I wasn’t entirely convinced by The passage of the angel to the virgin (2007), Hamilton’s updating of a Renaissance favourite, the Annunciation, for example. But these are minor quibbles. The exhibition is worth a visit alone for the opportunity to view Hamilton’s last work, Le Chef – d’oeuvre inconnu – a painting in three parts (2011 – printed 2012), which will probably pass into Hamilton legend as his last, great, unfinished, masterpiece.

Hamilton was working on Le Chef… for the final eighteen months of his life and he described it, according to this exhibitions catalogue, as his Etant Donnes. This is a slight exaggeration. Duchamp worked on his final piece in secret for twenty years when everyone thought he had given up art, releasing it only after his death as a way of upsetting Duchampian scholars from being able to sum up his life’s work into a neat little Duchampian shaped compartment. Hamilton’s final work doesn’t really deviate from the well-trodden Hamilton path. It is a nude, a particularly beautiful one. It references, and indeed collages, a number of old masters. And it is a digital mash-up of photography, painting, and collage. Based on a short story by Balzac, Le Chef… tells of a young painter trying to paint the perfect nude, produce the epitome of beauty and desire, but when he shows his work to a couple of other painter friends all they see is a mess of paint except for one beautifully rendered foot.

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