What would Richard Hamilton, the 20th century’s most politicised British painter, have made of Frieze 2012? A provocateur who famously crossed Playboy with the reclining nude, and was obsessed with the exploitation of art’s iconographies by advertising, he would surely have been amused that the National Gallery’s Richard Hamilton: The Late Works opens on the same day as the temple of art consumerism, in the year when Frieze’s leitmotif is the convergence of old and new.
Days before his death last September, Hamilton was planning this show as his valediction. It is a still, spare, serious, crystalline exposition of the themes of his entire oeuvre and, though much of Hamilton’s later work is a little academic, it stands out, for intellectual coherence and an independent approach to art-making, from every other current London show.
At its heart is the beautiful painting with the punning title “The Saensbury Wing” (2000). Based on a Dutch 17th-century church interior by Pieter Saenredam, this features a female nude wandering alone, reading a letter, among the austere, receding columns of the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing. At their end, where a monumental Renaissance altarpiece usually hangs, Hamilton instead depicts, off-centre, his own angry diptych “The Citizen” (1981-3), in which IRA prisoner Bobby Sands is portrayed as Jesus. Thus Hamilton, all his life, intruded his political vision into art historical tradition. But “The Saensbury Wing” works because it is exquisitely executed – every square of its cream, ivory, grey tiled floor a painterly pleasure, the whole suffused with a cool tonality, and a sense of disquiet undermining the familiarity of the setting, that recalls Delvaux or de Chirico.
Two series evolved around this painting. The blond, curly-haired, surprised-looking nude reappears in a group of pictures on motifs of the Annunciation, each referring to one another, and to the artifice of pictorial space. In photographs retouched in oil, the nude, laconic in a modernist interior, receives the divine message by telephone. In a digital montage, “The passage of the angel to the virgin”, she is the messenger – a blurred angel with purple-blue wings referencing Gabriel’s robe in Duccio’s “The Annunciation”, the National Gallery Old Master whose construction Hamilton mimics. In “Bathroom” the figure moves among clinical white surfaces and a floating red abstract; in “The passage of the bride” she is wraith-like, posed against elements, here resembling clothes on a washing line, from “The bride stripped bare”, the “Large Glass” installation which Marcel Duchamp authorised Hamilton to copy. All are clever but only the sole oil painting – the nude in a doorway, legs reflected in a glowing parquet floor – conveys emotion: the exhilaration/fear of a young woman on the cusp of change.
The second series, “Le chef d’oeuvre inconnu – a painting in three parts”, unfinished at Hamilton’s death, comprises a trio of large inkjet prints composed from Photoshop images to visualise the moment of crisis in Balzac’s novel The Unknown Masterpiece. A nude, orientalist, sensuous and asleep, is stretched on a divan in the foreground; behind, three male figures in black ponder, argue, agonise. So in Balzac’s narrative, a younger and middle-aged painter finally persuade the senior artist of their day to reveal the portrait of a woman on which he has spent his life – only to find an inchoate mess. That night, the old artist dies, having burnt all his canvases.
“The tale of three generations of artists beset by the same torment which comes to a climax with the realisation that their ambition can never be fulfilled is fascinating,” Hamilton noted. How does art recreate the power of human beauty? Can digital pixels compete with oil paint? In what ways does mass production affect an image’s cultural status?
Hamilton’s last nude is derived from a mid-19th-century French photograph; those who survey it are the young Courbet, the middle-aged Poussin, and the elderly Titian, each collaged from celebrated self-portraits. Are these a cumulative Photoshop assemblage of the painter in the 21st century, artistically/erotically frustrated, caught in a collector’s market which depends on an economics of unfulfilled desires and denied consummations? We will never know Hamilton’s full intentions for “The Unknown Masterpiece”, but the piece resonates sombrely, wittily, with London’s art frenzy this week.
‘Richard Hamilton: The Late Works’, National Gallery, London, until January 13, www.nationalgallery.org.uk