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The Pop Artist and Dadaist: Richard Hamilton and Marcel Duchamp
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Artists take inspiration from lots of different places – including each other. Join us as we explore the creative relationship between the Father of British Pop Art and one of the most significant artists of the 20th century; Richard Hamilton and Marcel Duchamp.
Richard Hamilton is often called the Father of British Pop Art, a movement that looked to commercial culture – cinema, advertising and pop music – as well as the more traditional fine arts. Hamilton himself believed that all art was equal, saying “TV is neither less nor more legitimate an influence than, for example, is New York Abstract Expressionism.”
His work embraces this lack of artistic hierarchy. He used all kinds of methods including photography, painting, collage and screenprinting to explore his creative ideas and drew inspiration from a multitude of sources; an advert for a car, Ulysses by James Joyce, and a tabloid photograph of his art dealer in handcuffs along with Mick Jagger in 1967, to name but a few.
But Hamilton wasn’t just a pop artist; he was also an artist who believed that the idea or concept behind an artwork was of central importance. With that in mind, it’s not surprising that he was fascinated by Marcel Duchamp, the man who turned the art world upside down in the early 20th century with Fountain (1917), a porcelain urinal signed by the artist; a work that challenged our conception of art to its very core.
Hamilton was introduced to the work of Duchamp in the early 1950s through fellow artists Nigel Henderson and Roland Penrose, who owned a copy of Duchamp’s The Green Box (1934). Hamilton was immediately intrigued by this collection of studies, notes and drawings that Duchamp had intended to accompany his monumental work, The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (also known as The Large Glass) (1915-1923), although it was ultimately published many years later.
The Large Glass is admittedly at first quite baffling. This was deliberate as the work explores Duchamp’s view that art forms such as paintings and sculpture are inadequate ways to depict contemporary life. The piece is a machine-like organism, with different mechanical devices representing the bride and her bachelors. The impossibility of contact between these two elements was intended to frustrate the viewer – a metaphor for sexual frustration.
Duchamp did not want people to just react to the artwork based purely on how it looks – which feels like an unusual stance for an artist to take! But Duchamp rejected the idea that art should only be pleasing to the eye. He wanted, in his words, “to put art back in the service of the mind”.
All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone. The spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.
Hamilton was intrigued by Duchamp’s writings and work. In a BBC Radio 3 interview he said: “What was marvellous about Duchamp I found, and what I admired him almost most for, was his detachment. It was as though he’s looking at the thing from quite a distance and I was quite happy to adopt that as one of the useful things that he could teach me; stand back a bit.”
Hamilton’s reverence to Duchamp was such that all the paintings in his exhibition at Hanover Gallery in 1955 were in some form of homage to Duchamp. A year later, Hamilton initiated a correspondence with Duchamp that continued until the latter’s death in 1968. Duchamp called Hamilton his “great decipherer” revealing not only the respect he had for the younger artist but also the level of understanding that Hamilton had for his work.
In 1966, Hamilton curated the first British retrospective of Duchamp’s work at Tate. As the original work was too fragile to travel from America, Hamilton set about creating a reconstruction, based on his understanding of the notes in The Green Box, which, a few years earlier, he had translated and published as a book.
Hamilton spent a year working on the reconstruction while working as a lecturer at the University of Newcastle. Hamilton had to practice some of the techniques required in the reconstruction, and so he made a couple of studies, one being the Oculist Witnesses (1967). After the exhibition, when a publisher was seeking to make multiple editions from The Large Glass, Duchamp suggested this glass study, which he considered a new work jointly made with Hamilton. Both artists signed the final work – further proof, if we needed it, of their mutual affection and respect for one another.
Marcel Duchamp first came to prominence in pre-First World War Paris; Richard Hamilton achieved notoriety in 1960s Swinging London. Although the social and political contexts in which they created their art were very different, both artists created work that challenges how art is made, and how we receive and understand images and information. Their ideas have remained relevant throughout the 20th century, and continue to hold relevance for the new millenium.
Pallant House Gallery is home to an outstanding collection of British Pop Art, including some of Richard Hamilton’s most significant works, including Hers is a Lush Situation (1958); Swingeing London ’67 (1968); and Oculist Witnesses (1968). Many of these are on display in Richard Hamilton: Respective.
Are Hamilton’s ideas still relevant on the modern world? Join us on Thursday 25 February 2021 for an online talk with Head of Exhibitions, Louise Weller, as she explores Hamilton’s ideas and artistic practice.