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Richard Hamilton: Father of pop art

Sabine Oelze
February 24, 2022

The Briton who would have turned 100 today, is often dubbed the father of pop art. He had long used popular culture images for his art — way before Andy Warhol did.

A portrait of Richard Hamilton in a cap.
Richard Hamilton is a pop art poineerImage: imago stock&people

Long before Americans Andy Warhol or James Rosenquist became known for their pop art, Richard Hamilton was shaking up Britain's art scene, introducing mass production techniques into painting.

After attending various art schools in London, Hamilton launched his career as a pop artistin the early 1950s. He was one of the leading figures in the intellectual and artistic movement called the "Independent Group." It was the first to deal with phenomena such as advertising, film, and tabloid magazines.

Richard Hamilton sitting in front of one of his works titled "Lobby."
Richard Hamilton has had a long and storied careerImage: Oliver Krato/dpa/picture alliance

Uncomfortable with 'Father of pop art' title

When asked about it 20 years ago during an exhibition at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Hamilton who died on September 13, 2011, recalled the heyday of the independent group movement. "In the 1956s to 1957s, I began to think about why artists were concerned with things that had nothing at all to do with their everyday lives. We all went to the movies at least three times a week in those days. But most of them returned to their studios and painted monochrome or abstract pictures. That's why I drew up a program in which I wrote down everything that seemed important to me for contemporary art. A kind of manifesto that I hoped would also interest my colleagues — but it didn't." Yet Hamilton, who discovered art through advertising, was undeterred.

An exhibition of his work with a painting featuring a robot holding a woman in a yellow dress.
Hamilton is not always comfortable with his title "father of pop art"Image: Andy Rain/dpa/picture alliance

First pop art piece

The first artistic realization of this manifesto was the installation "Fun House," which Hamilton designed for the London exhibition "This is Tomorrow" in 1956. Visitors had to squeeze through a narrow corridor past pin-up pictures, hundreds of advertisements, movie posters and spinning color discs, while songs by Elvis Presley and Little Richard alternately blared from a jukebox. At the end, visitors were allowed to get active and speak into a microphone.

"With the things I exhibited in the fun house, I tried to reflect the young people's attitude to life. Music, science fiction movies, objects. I was pretty much alone in the exhibition with that. Everyone else was looking back rather than into the future. But it was my contribution that caused a sensation."

Arts.21 - Pop culture goes global

Such a walk-in installation, however, is an exception in Hamilton's oeuvre. In the 1960s, the artist, who was born in London on February 24, 1922, concentrated on using photography as the basis for his work. The results are post-dadaist text-photo collages, conundrum images in which fenders can also be interpreted as breasts or silver foils as male genitals.

In the picture "Bathers" he puts in a pink bathing cap and the flowered fabric of a bathing suit. In the advertising sign of the French alcohol brand 'Ricard' he inserts an 'H,' unceremoniously renaming it Richard, his first name. He blows up a readymade tabletop stove into a colorized photographic still life.

A woman stands in front of a collage of images that appear to be taken from books and film.
The Tate Modern had a retrospective of his work in 2014Image: Andy Rain/dpa/picture alliance

Marcel Duchamp and James Joyce

Dadaist Marcel Duchamp and the Irish author James Joyce with his idiosyncratic novel "Ulysses," were important role models for Hamilton. The artist explained his love of this book, which is considered especially complex: "I have never experienced this in any other book: Joyce combines the entire history of English literature in one chapter: Shakespeare, Pope, Milton. For me, this was the challenge of bringing together completely different techniques and qualities into one picture. Each image was to be its own system, an accumulation of ideas."

In the process, Hamilton works through various genres of painting in great detail: Landscape, interior, and still life portraits. Each motif, each type of picture is fundamentally worked out once and alienated in the most diverse ways.

This approach also distinguished Hamilton from his American colleagues. Unlike Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist, or Roy Lichtenstein, Hamilton is not a propagandist, but rather an analytical commentator on pop culture. To this day, he is considered a pioneer of pop art, and his works are a model for numerous young artists. He would have turned 100 today.

This article was originally written in German.