Up until his death aged 89 in September 2011, Richard Hamilton was planning a major exhibition of recent works conceived specifically for the National Gallery
. This highly personal exhibition is a masterful final statement of intent by one of the most influential British artists of the 20th century, and includes 30 paintings in a labyrinth-like space also designed by the artist. Some of the works have never been seen by the public. The exhibition as a whole encapsulates many of the influential directions Hamiltons art had taken over recent decades, when his international reputation soared.
Just before his death, Hamilton was at work on a major painting based on Honoré de Balzacs short story 'Le Chef-doeuvre inconnu' (The Unknown Masterpiece). When it became clear he would not live to finish the work, Hamilton decided that the National Gallery exhibition the first significant one since his death would culminate in the initial presentation of three large-scale variations on this work. Each one shows three masters of painting Poussin, Courbet and Titian contemplating a reclining female nude; together, they suggest how the final work might have evolved.
Planned in detail by Hamilton, the exhibition incorporates paintings personally selected by the artist. Most are from the past decade and trace an oblique and enigmatic path to the final work based on Balzacs short story, '"Le Chef-doeuvre inconnu" a painting in three parts'. Hamilton had close ties with the National Gallery throughout his career as a frequent visitor, a teacher guiding his students to its treasures, a curator, and, in the 'Encounters' exhibition of 2000, an exhibitor and many of his later works reflect the inspiration he took from the Gallerys collection of Old Masters. These include a recent painting, not shown in Britain before, based on traditional Annunciation iconography.
The exhibition traces several themes of the artists career from the 1980s until his death. They include his exacting attention to single-point perspective and the pictorial creation of interior spaces, as seen in works such as 'Lobby', 19857; the theme of the beautiful woman and desire; and his later interest in space and perspective in works by Renaissance artists.
The show surveys Hamiltons engagement over more than 50 years with the art of Marcel Duchamp (18871968) whose master themes, including the nude descending a staircase and the bride stripped bare, he re-addresses. Indeed, '"Le Chef-doeuvre inconnu" a painting in three parts' can be seen as the artists long-considered response to Duchamps 'Etants donné' (Philadelphia Museum of Art), the secret installation that was the French artists final work too, and his most enigmatic masterpiece.
Hamiltons innovations as a pioneer in the artistic use of the computer and his advocacy of the use of computer technology, collage and photography in his pictures are examined in the exhibition. Even so, he remained primarily a painter.
Born in London in 1922, Hamilton was one of the founders of the Pop Art movement in the 1950s, contributing to the seminal Whitechapel Art Gallery exhibition 'This is Tomorrow' in 1956. His collage 'Just what is it that makes todays homes so different, so appealing?' used for the shows posters, became known as one of the earliest works of Pop Art.
A decade later he designed the cover for the Beatles 'White Album'. Since then Hamilton has achieved iconic status and received many honours, including the Leone dOro (Golden Lion) for his exhibition in the British Pavilion at the 1993 Venice Biennale. At the same time, he was never far from, nor did he avoid, controversy, whether artistic or political.