by Andrew Wilson
Richard Hamilton, Swingeing London '67, 1967-68, Relief silkscreen and oil on photo on board Pallant House Gallery (Wilson Gift through The Art Fund, 2006)
Richard Hamilton's work portrays a particular moment drawn from the news, yet despite being based on a photograph that had been reproduced on the front page of a newspaper, his aim is as far from reportage as it is possible to be. This painting, along with the rest of this series, is one of the defining images of Pop Art. It is a painting that has its genesis in Hamilton's strong personal response to the British state's attack on the freedom of one of his friends - the art dealer Robert Fraser, depicted shackled to his friend and co-defendant Mick Jagger. It addresses celebrity culture head-on, but in the context of a clash of values between the world of popular culture- as counterculture - and the old order and traditions of the establishment. The painting is itself materially part of this clash. It is couched in an idiom that had for almost 15 years been elaborated by Hamilton, embodying a refusal to recognise the value judgements of an old aesthetic order and its attendant outmoded hierarchies.
For Hamilton, Pop Art was the expression of an open-ended analytical, critical and artistic process that was evidence of his own direct engagement as an artist with ethical issues; the two being indivisible. With this view, he created an approach to painting that could properly integrate a range of sources and approaches to image production. This included as subject not only the image itself but also what that image's purpose and meaning had been and could be. The resulting painting was not a mute representational object but a trigger for a critical activity that was as much about looking at as reading in. What Hamilton learned during the period of the Independent Group was that in investigating the language of car styling, for instance, he “wasn't just concerned with the car and the idea of speed, but the way it was presented to us in the mass media ...presenting a glamorous object by all the devices that glamorous advertising can add”. So, with ‘Swingeing London 67’, Hamilton is not just providing an image of an event, but also an image of what determines the conditions of that image - the finished work offering evidence of his investigation.
For Hamilton, the 'long front of culture' (to use the term coined by critic Lawrence Alloway) proposes that an artist cannot but be involved in mass culture and so be a 'knowing consumer' of it. It follows from this that an artist will produce art that doesn't just reflect changing values in society but also acts them out. In this respect Pop can best be understood as the manifestation of a new form of history painting - one that, through a clearly stated belief in the changing values of society, expresses a challenge to the dominant social and political culture. The expression of Hamilton's challenge was both critical and celebratory of the material that formed the subject and object of his art. It was a challenge that was bound up with images and the ways that meaning could be created and conveyed; an equation that was so strikingly achieved with ‘Swingeing London 67’.