Standing on the steps of the entrance to London’s famous National Gallery with the imposing walls and mighty façade towering over-head, one cannot help but feel that this is a fitting place to house a collection of artworks seminal in their development of our popular culture.
A national treasure in itself, our mighty institution houses all kinds of glistening booty, and it only seems appropriate that it should display the late works of one of the most important artists of the modern age. An exhibition that was planned before his untimely death last year, the show is a small display of Richard Hamilton’s (1922-2011) late works (some unfinished), personally selected by the artist himself.
Being a stalwart of modern art, it is tempting to instantly five star Hamilton’s posthumous display. Dubbed as the father of pop art, he is unrivalled in his success and progression of the style, with his 1956 collage, ‘Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?’, considered by many historians to mark the birth of the entire movement. Often associated with the swinging sixties – think of Swingeing London, which sees Mick Jagger and art dealer Robert Fraser shielding their faces as the cameras glare at them on their way to court after a drugs bust – he had a prolific career that spanned seven decades. Credited with coining the term ‘pop art’ itself, there is little doubt that he pioneered the cheap, gimmicky and glamorous conditions of pop art that were to inspire Andy Warhol, Peter Blake and more recently, Damien Hirst.
…the show feels uncomfortable…
Unfortunately however, all is not as it should be, and for an artist whose work embodied the blood-pumping swinging sixties, the exhibition has a decidedly cold, impersonal atmosphere. Partly due to the geometric, linear precision of many of Hamilton’s works, as well as the unwelcoming subject matter such as the travel-lodge style depiction of a deserted hotel foyer in Lobby, the show feels uncomfortable. This distant atmosphere is aided by the clinical, ‘make-do’ feel of the room, which feels more like a hospital waiting room than a gallery space.
It’s easy to remedy this frosty mood by stating that this is simply what Hamilton’s work had become by the end of his life, but this seems somewhat one-dimensional as an explanation. It seems more to do with the location of the show. The Sunley Room is positioned in between the Central Hall and Room 30 and this seems to be part of the problem. Acting as a transitional space, it feels as if the exhibition has been placed (due to lack of room) within a passage that acts simply as a way through, not as a room housing a key display reflecting this paragon of an artist.
…leaves the viewer hungry for something to grapple on to…
What’s more, the exhibition is somewhat difficult to identify with. It attempts to introduce the viewer to Hamilton’s old-master inspired work from a later part in his life and suggests that there is a deeper element to his superficial, glam-dipped treasures than many realize. The Passage of the Angel to the Virgin, for example sees influence from Fra Angelico’s 15th Century masterpiece, The Annunciation and the exhibition does well to encourage the viewer to realize this association with the past. However, once realized, the shows success dries up and leaves the viewer hungry for something to grapple on to.
A fantastic artist that has not been done justice and although worth a visit to pay your respects to a British marvel, the detached nature of the display leaves much to be desired. A canapé of a show, the national gallery leaves the viewer with nothing more than a cold taster of a British legend.
Main Image: X7892, Richard Hamilton, The Passage of the Angel to the Virgin, 2007, Digital montage, Fuji/Oce LightJet on canvas, 120 x 168 cm, © Courtesy of the Estate of Richard Hamilton