'Self-Portrait 13.7.80 a' (1990)
'Self-Portrait 13.7.80 a' (1990)

In Picasso and Truth, the art historian TJ Clark argues that, faced with horror, European modernists retreated to the interior: Picasso’s and Matisse’s studio paintings, Bonnard in his bathroom, Duchamp “playing peek-a-boo through a crack in the door”. Serious postwar British artists surely did the same: Lucian Freud among splattered rags and floorboards in Paddington; Howard Hodgkin’s intimiste abstracted bedrooms; the designer cool of David Hockney’s “Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy”.

Then there is Richard Hamilton (1922-2011), political, outward-looking, a multimedia experimenter, yet an artist who also made the interior his chief unifying motif. As a revelatory retrospective held jointly at Tate Modern and the Institute of Contemporary Arts chronicles, Hamilton’s unique take was to tie the theme both to art history and to the brave new world of the communications revolution.

In “Interior I” (1964), Hamilton collages the tense figure of actress Patricia Knight, murderer-heroine in the film Shockproof (1949), against a gestural grey/blue curtain evoking Manet’s “Olympia”, office furniture whose faux bois surfaces reprise cubism’s deconstructions, and a solitary actual pencil floating on a bare desk: a mourning for painting. In “Interior II”, he restages the scene to include a Decca television pasted with the most famous image of the time: President Kennedy’s assassination. Patricia Knight looks straight past it. “It’s extraordinary,” Hamilton remarked, “that an assassination can happen in real time in your living room and you might be more interested in something else.”

Prophetic from the 1950s onwards about the increasing convergence of public and private space, Hamilton explored what he called “the great visual matrix that surrounds us”: how screens and phones invade our living rooms, mass marketing manipulates our minds, information overload conditions art-making.

'Still-life' (1965)
'Still-life' (1965)

In “The Annunciation” (2005-07), a digital print retouched in oil, a laconic Virgin in a minimalist domestic setting receives the momentous news by telephone. Her fate communicated by technology, this Mary descends from the Eve in Hamilton’s celebrated “Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?” (1956), depicting Eden as a modern, technology-powered interior. A consumer-generation Adam and Eve here are a bodybuilder, pink lollipop inscribed “pop” as his fig leaf, and a busty model liberated from arduous housework by the long cord on her new vacuum cleaner.

“Just what is it?” launched pop art, a movement Hamilton perceived from the outset as infused with nostalgia. “An interior is a set of anachronisms,” he argued. Decades later, when painting the exquisitely mannered ivory/grey receding columns and tiles of the National Gallery in “The Sainsbury Wing” (2000), he placed as an altarpiece a representation of his own, already dated 1980s diptych “The Citizen” of an IRA blanket protester portrayed as Jesus, while also alluding to a 17th-century church interior. This is painting about time lost, passing, collapsed – and perhaps regained by art.

Never before has it been possible to make such links across half a century of Hamilton’s diverse output, to pinpoint its formal and conceptual consistencies. Tate’s comprehensive overview is a joy, with the ICA’s painstaking recreation of Hamilton’s little-known early shows a masterstroke offering fresh context and understanding. “Man, Machine and Motion” (1955) comprises 200 photographic images of man at speed, height and depth – in cars, planes, underwater – clipped to steel frames; “An Exhibit” (1957) consists of Perspex panels suspended by threads in a grid-like maze, immersive interiors anticipating today’s participatory installations.

'Interior II' (1964)
'Interior II' (1964)

Hamilton moved on quickly to develop his interest in the relationship between vision and movement, an iconography of motion, in accomplished paintings turning on sexual allusions in automobile styling – the curvaceous headlights, bumpers, breasts, lips in the 1957 series including “Hommage à Chrysler Corp” and “Hers is a Lush Situation”, gathered together at Tate.

Wonderfully optimistic, although ambivalent towards advertising – “an art of affirmatory intention is not uncritical,” Hamilton insisted – they demonstrate what a refined, subtle, expressive painter Hamilton could be: aesthetic seduction here underlines sexual and commercial seduction.

A few hybrid photograph-paintings from the 1960s repeat the flair with which these canvases dovetail the painterly and conceptual: the collage “Swingeing London 67”, based on newspaper shots of Mick Jagger and gallerist Robert Fraser handcuffed in a police van after a drugs bust; “Hugh Gaitskell as a Famous Monster of Filmland”, where Hamilton layered brushstrokes over a photograph of the Labour leader until “an interestingly nasty paint quality began to emerge” and Gaitskell resembled Claude Rains in Phantom of the Opera.

Their resonance is apparent in later protest paintings that ape some of their formal strategies – Tony Blair as devil-cowboy in “Shock and Awe” (2008), Mordechai Vanunu, the whistleblower returned illegally to Israel by Mossad, confined in a police car in “Unorthodox Rendition” (2010).

'Hommage à Chrysler Corp' (1957)
'Hommage à Chrysler Corp' (1957)

If these, like almost all the late paintings, are overblown, didactic and lack the panache, conviction and wit of the earlier works, there are, nevertheless, compensations in the second part of Tate’s show. While his peers honed their pop styles, Hamilton focused through the 1960s on his idol Marcel Duchamp, who told him that “art was all about thinking”.

With Duchamp’s authority, Hamilton reconstructed the seminal sculptural installation “The Large Glass”, on display here, and curated Duchamp’s only British retrospective. Duchampian echoes abound in the small-scale 1970s conceptual still lifes: dentures posed on an electric toothbrush in “The Critic Laughs” call to mind Duchamp’s gruesome plaster and pink dental plastic “Wedge of Chastity”; the glass “Carafe” inscribed “Richard” instead of the pastis brand “Ricard” is typical of Duchamp’s puns.

Tate has constructed a special room to house “Lobby”, a monumental painting from 1985-87 representing a Berlin hotel lobby as a mundane, clinical yet spatially complex interior with several vanishing points, mirrored reflections and two flights of stairs. It is at once a homage to Duchamp’s dizzying painting “Nude Descending a Staircase”, an epic of everyday late 20th-century life, and, in Hamilton’s words, “an old man’s picture”: the work of an artist who, as this retrospective marvellously conveys, shared Duchamp’s restless, curious mind, open-ended sense of art without hierarchies and, as he aged, his pessimism.

‘Richard Hamilton’, Tate Modern, London, to May 26, tate.org.uk; ICA, London, to April 6, ica.org.uk

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