Shock and Awe by Richard Hamilton, 2007/8
This is a political portrait with a difference.
It is massive – life size! and not the sort of picture you would find in the National Portrait Gallery.
Constructed using photo shop, and printed with inkjet on canvas it gives us a not entirely realistic photo of a well-known politician, Tony Blair, the UK prime minister who took the UK to war in Iraq,
Tony Blair, the UK prime minister who took the UK to war in Iraq, is dressed in Wild West clothes with guns at the ready.
He is trying to present himself on the world stage as a war leader and close ally of US President Bush.
The power of the composition comes from its simplicity and it subtle manipulation of a photo.
Look a little more closely, and the impending disaster of the Iraq war is laid bare for all to see.
Against massive public opposition in the UK, Tony Blair, British Prime Minister sent British troops into Iraq on the justification – which proved incorrect - that Iraq concealed weapons of mass destruction.
The title Shock and Awe refers to the military strategy of overcoming an enemy through the rapid demonstration of overwhelming power. US bombers pounded Baghdad until burning buildings lit up the night sky. As a military strategy, it failed miserably.
The image is a life-sized picture of Blair in a Roy Rogers cowboy shirt, jeans and boots with six shooters and with straps that are too big for his short legs. Teeth gritted, Blair looks more fearful than tough.
Do we see him, guns clutched, just before he draws or just after he has fired, too quick to draw after all? The desolate space behind him, a fiery purgatory, suggests that it is just after. The no man's land is meant to evoke Baghdad on the first night of the shock and awe, but clearly the shock and awe is Blair’s too, they are registered in his eyes and the lines in his face. He is horrified: this is not what he imagined; it is the wrong film, the wrong history, and he is not right for the part in any case.
The portrait also has an undeniable link to one of America's ultimate cowboys, former U.S. President George W. Bush. In Hamilton’s eyes Tony Blair, the would-be war leader, is reduced to a posturing model from a photographer’s studio. Hamilton defended his right to paint whatever he wanted to portray, regardless of how controversial the resulting image is. He said: 'What I always say is: I do whatever I feel like. 'People don't seem to understand that an artist is free to do whatever he wants, and I've always relished that possibility.'
The Citizen by Richard Hamilton, 1982-3
About Richard Hamilton
Richard Hamilton was born in London in 1922, the son of a car show room driver.
He was educated at the Royal Academy Schools from 1938 to 1940. He undertook a formal education in drawing and painting models, and plaster casts, studied engineering draughtsmanship at a Government Training Centre in 1940 after the Schools in the War, then worked as a 'jig and tool' designer.
He returned in 1946 to the Royal Academy Schools, from which he was expelled for 'not profiting from the instruction being given in the painting school', and then attended the Slade School of Art from 1948 to 1951.
He took an experimental approach to art. He often produced several versions of a particular work rather than a single finished piece. Throughout his career, he explored different printmaking and digital techniques. Even in his eighties, his studio had the latest technology.
His interest in photography led him to use found images often from the media and publicity photographs.
He was associated with Marcel Duchamp and collaborated with American artists like Roy Lichtenstein.
Hamilton was a member of the Independent Group, formed in the 1950s by a group of artists and writers at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, whose symposiums contributed to the development of Pop Art in Britain. He was one of the prime practitioners of the critic Lawrence Alloway's theory of a 'fine/pop art continuum'. Hamilton interpreted this as meaning that all art is equal - there was no hierarchy of value. Elvis was to one side of a long line while Picasso was strung out on the other side ... TV is neither less nor more legitimate an influence than, for example, is New York Abstract Expressionism.
Sometimes he played with the clichés and the cliché-producing mechanics of the consumer society; at other times his attention went to the transforming power of photography and our conditioned reading of photographs, as in Whitley Bay (1965) and the series of studies derived from it; at yet others he used to press and TV imagery to protest against various forms of oppression, including the media's freeway with facts when in pursuit of a "story".
The Swingeing London 67 series commented on the supposed permissiveness of the 60s and the police's obligation to invade privacy. It was based on a newspaper photograph of Mick Jagger and the gallery owner Robert Fraser in a police van being brought to trial for smoking cannabis.
Kent State (1970) was developed from a TV image of a student shot on campus by soldiers.
War Games (1991-92) used TV news footage of the Gulf War to remind us that what the media delivered almost as a sport cost thousands of lives.
Lobby (1984/5) derives from a postcard of a hotel entrance in Berlin, with its seemingly endless carpet and stairs and confounding mirrors. It reminded him of Sartre's Huis Clos (No Exit); it also recalls Dante. The hotel is the Europa.
In the 1990s and 2000s, he tackled controversial political subjects and reflected on the changing ways in which news was conveyed through the media.
Hamilton continued working until his death in 2011, at the age of 89.
The Bigger Picture
Hamilton’s work ranged across approaches from pop art to the techniques of the surrealist Duchamp, the unconventional French/American. During the mid-fifties and sixties, Hamilton was inspired by a range of social, media and political themes. He worked within the context of popular culture but move beyond it by using found images, film, installation and montage to raise bigger issues affecting society. He is the most political of artists, not afraid of tackling controversial issues.
He had such an inventive mind that, however, many works you see, it is always fascinating to follow where he takes you. As with Degas and Picasso, he is forever searching for something as he picks up his pencil to plan out a work. That thing was a means of representing the modern world in all its technological and consumer brightness, whether it was consumer products, the imagery of personality or the wonders of the digital age.
In his 1956 collage Just What is it that Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing? Hamilton has a muscle-man provocatively holding a lolly with the word POP and a woman with bare breasts wearing a lampshade hat, surrounded by emblems of the affluence of 1950s capitalism from a vacuum cleaner to a large canned ham. Capitalism is portrayed as 'cool', it was riding high in its 'golden age' of the post-war economic boom, the reformists believed capitalism could work in the interests of the working class, and Macmillan proclaimed 'people have never had it so good.'
Hamilton particularly admired the German electrical company Braun and its Chief Design Officer Dieter Rams whose 'consumer products came to occupy a place in my heart and consciousness that Mont Sainte-Victoire did in Cézannes', and in 1964, he began to base works on Braun's marketing images.
After the failure of Keynesian capitalism in the 1970s, Hamilton was horrified by the 1980s capitalist restructuring under Thatcher, and the reintroduction of unfettered free market capitalism. His 1984 installation Treatment Room is inspired by the bleak, clinical style of the capitalist state reflected in the DHSS office or NHS hospital waiting room. A TV monitor where the X-ray machine would repeat footage of Thatcher from the 1983 Tory Party Conference.
In the eighties he focused on the relationship between the citizen and the state in some powerful images. His representation of the IRA’s dirty protest attracted a great deal of attention. Denied the status of political prisoner the inmates of Long Kesh decided to wear only blankets and to daub their cell walls with excrement. Later a group embarked on a hunger strike.
Hamilton compared these actions with those of Christian martyrs. He compared the brown marks on their cell walls to the swirls of the Book of Kells. One side of the Citizen shows the prisoner in his cell, the other the more abstract, and unconfined space.
The painting consists of two canvases. The left-hand panel is vaguely abstract and represents the excrement-daubed walls of the prisoner's cell. Hamilton noted how the calligraphic, abstract qualities of the H-block prisoner's mark-making could be seen to have stylistic links back to the earliest phases of Irish art: 'Each cell is marked with the graphic personality of its inhabitants; the walls look different because the pigment, of their creation, is deployed in varying ways. It isn't difficult to discern the megalithic spirals of New Grange inscribed there, nor are the Gaelic convolutions of the book of Kells remote from the wall paintings of Long Kesh.
The painting's title is taken from the 'Cyclops' episode of James Joyce's Ulysses, in which the hero Leopold Bloom comes into conflict with a Fenian bar-fly known to all as 'citizen' (with a lower case 'c'). The citizen is associated by Joyce with a heroic Irish chieftain, Finn MacCool, as well as with the giant Polyphemus of Homer's Odyssey. The Fenians were devoted to the liberation of Ireland.
The television and trivialisation of wars attracted Hamilton’s wrath in the nineties. His War Games (1991-92) used TV news footage of the 1991 Gulf War, which portrayed the war as a sport for viewers and reminds us of the BBC Newsnight coverage with Peter Snow's sandpit and models.
Representing Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1993, Hamilton created a painting that shows a British soldier patrolling the streets of Northern Ireland, with a soft-focused country lane to his left. Hamilton wanted to show a young conscript stepping back, a movement for him that suggested the British wish to leave Northern Ireland.
Hamilton has said that he regards collage as the device most important to him. It was collage, the idea of creating a new unity of disparate parts he saw as being a key element in most 20thcentury art, including film and music. To that can be added the archive of memory. We collect memories every nana-second of our existence, visual memories being the most immediate. We also collect stimuli to affect recall. These can be relics or codes, but they lead one to another in a complex game of following my leader.
Intriguing facets of Hamilton‘s work is the way in which a particular image is subjected to reassimilation into various mediums.