Richard Hamilton, political painter

“Since the Greeks,” Richard Hamilton writes in the catalogue to his new show Modern Moral Matters at the Serpentine Gallery, “it has been taken for granted that a painting is to be experienced as a totality seen and understood all at once before its components are examined.” Hamilton, following Marcel Duchamp, was among the first to break down this expectation – realising that, once painting lost its function of bearing witness, formal unity falls apart too. “My Marilyn” demands to be read by cross-referencing within the picture. “Swingeing London 67” presents a newspaper image – Mick Jagger and art dealer Robert Fraser handcuffed together in a police car – like a poster which only gradually, through several variations, yields up painterly and conceptual nuances.

Yet both these works have become 1960s icons. That is the paradox and genius of Hamilton: in confronting the challenge that younger media – photography, television, internet – has posed to painting’s hegemony, he created a viable, compelling new version of that most beleaguered genre, history painting. “I wanted to see how close to photography I could stay, yet still be a painter in intent,” he says. Nowhere is that attempt to square the circle more apparent than in his “protest pictures”, the works where Hamilton’s three major influences – Duchamp’s intellectual playfulness, Warhol’s anatomy of mass media, and echoes of Victorian moralising narrative – most intensely coalesce.

“Hugh Gaitskell as a Famous Monster of Filmland” (1964), the earliest piece here, holds these elements in balance with superb, youthful comic energy. To Hamilton, Gaitskell’s embrace of a nuclear deterrent policy made him a monster. Over a press photograph of the Labour leader, he layered brushstrokes until “an interestingly nasty paint quality began to emerge”. The monster mask painted over Gaitskell’s face, with its bulging bloodshot eye, is derived from a still of Claude Rains in The Phantom of the Opera. The queasy image remains a marvellous emblem of the absurdity and corruption of political power, underlined by two ghoulish studies: a light crayon and gouache drawing, and a copper relief panel scraped and rubbed, with holes drilled for eyes behind which a motorised circle revolves to present spookily changing colours for the pupils.

In its tension between photographic base and lively textural surface, and its marriage of realism and grotesquerie, “Hugh Gaitskell” suggests the diverse visual landscape that in the 1960s suddenly flooded a painter with a confusion of opportunities. In his epic series “Swingeing London 67”, Hamilton takes on what he called “the great visual matrix that surrounds us” by fragmenting the newspaper image which was his source and manipulating it to focus on two figures shielding their faces from the camera’s flash with lordly, popstar sweeps of the hand. The subject is not only the arrest of Jagger and Fraser for drug possession, and the “swingeing sentence” – the judge’s words – imposed as a deterrent, but how we experience news second-hand through the media.

Variations here use myriad techniques – silkscreen and oil, airbrushing, acrylic, etching, die-stamping, watercolour – to present the image as a relay of information and illusion. Some versions are painterly or – like the collage with glittering aluminium handcuffs – wonderful distillations of glamour; others are stylised, documentary, photographically blurred. Throughout, careful play of technique tempers feeling. The result is a key pop work – agit-prop infused with art’s sense of political empowerment and optimism.

“Swingeing London” gives this show an almost dizzyingly nostalgic mood. No political art today can match Hamilton in the 1960s for élan, inventiveness, a fine-tuning of form and content, all underpinned by the conviction that art can effect social change. Young British Art, even at its angriest, looks child’s-play by comparison.

Yet the ebbing away of art’s political resonance has not left the survivors among the major artists of the 1960s untouched. Most of that decade’s enfants terribles, for whom formal innovation was hitched to a political/social agenda, are, half a century on, making work that is either not political at all (David Hockney’s landscapes, Gerhard Richter’s sentimental portraits of his family) or has degenerated into self-parody (Gilbert and George’s “Jack Freak” pictures). Hamilton, exceptionally, has kept on the front line, and one would love to believe that his moral stance has helped his art. But I think it hasn’t: the second part of this show droops with the tired, repetitive formulae of an ageing rebel still chattering revolutionary language when battles have moved on.

“Kent State” (1970), documenting the shooting of anti-Vietnam protester Dean Kahler, is visually feeble and circumscribed by being too close to its source – heavily pixilated, following the transmission lines and curved border of television screens. The Irish cycle “The Citizen”, “The Subject” and “The State” (1981-94), representing hunger-striker as hero and Orangeman and British paratrooper as frightened figures on bomb-wrecked streets, and the anti-Thatcher installation of a television monitor above an empty hospital bed, “Treatment Room” (1983-4), are unsubtle, without formal interest – updated Victorian didacticism. The heavy-handed “Shock and Awe” (2007-8), an inkjet print of Tony Blair as cowboy in thrall to American values, is weakest of all.

But pigeonhole 88-year-old Hamilton as the dog who had his day in the 1960s, and he barks back – with a new painting “Un-orthodox Rendition” (2009-10), shown for the first time here. It depicts Mordechai Vanunu, the Israeli nuclear technician kidnapped and imprisoned for blowing the whistle on his country’s nuclear programme. The title plays on Vanunu’s non-orthodox stance in giving away Israeli secrets, possibly on his non-orthodoxy (he is a Christian convert), and on the illegal means by which Mossad returned him to Israel. It also refers to Hamilton’s surprising rendering of a flat TV image into a lyrical, painterly canvas.

Based on a shot of Vanunu en route to trial in Jerusalem, it looks back wittily to “Hugh Gaitskell” in its anti-nuclear theme and to “Swingeing London” in its composition. Confined in a police car like Jagger and Fraser, Vanunu, face cropped, half emerging into the light from the shadows, holds up a hand like them in pop glamour/defiance/vulnerability. A moving individual portrait, an argument about personal liberty, “Unorthodox Rendition” is an assertion, too, that humanism remains, now and always, the essential ingredient that painting brings to the cultural feast.

Richard Hamilton, ‘Modern Moral Matters’, Serpentine Gallery, London until April 25.

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