Thursday, 6 March 2014

Richard Hamilton's Paintings of the Troubles

Richard Hamilton
Tate Modern, London
13 February 2014 – 26 May 2014


The retrospective of one of the founding artists of Pop Art, Richard Hamilton, inhabits eighteen rooms at Tate Modern, detailing his sixty-year career, and in so doing, a history of post-war pop culture and British public perception of the world. Whether impressed by Hamilton’s exceptional and innovative techniques in painting and collage, or curious to see an original take on modern British history, the exhibition will satisfy and fascinate most who attend.  

From early exhibition designs of the 1950s, epic paintings of Mick Jagger and Tony Blair, and a print of the famous, ‘Just what it is that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? (1956) – to the wide range of subject matter that the artist considered in his work, everything that filtered through to pop culture and awareness has some part to play in the exhibition. I was particularly drawn to Hamilton’s overtly political art, such as Treatment Room (1984), an installation that shows a hospital bed wired up to a TV screen flashing images of Margaret Thatcher, and Shock and Awe (2010), depicting Tony Blair as a grimacing cowboy. The Kent State shootings are used as subject matter in some of Hamilton’s last paintings, and, more subtly, the assassination of President Kennedy is featured on a TV screen in Interior II (1964), in a space otherwise filled with an Eames chair and a woman fashionably dressed, and contrasting to the rest of the painting in being shown in black and white rather than colour – disorientated as well as focussed upon – with politics and tragedy as something going on in the background of modern life.

Hamilton’s paintings that concern the conflict in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles, however, are not subtle at all, even if in the scope of the rest of his work, and this exhibition, in a sense they still show politics as something going on in the background. Even the fact that Hamilton’s paintings of the Troubles show individuals (or rather, caricatures) of the conflict, rather than make any effort to communicate the reality of a situation that bordered on civil war, and involved thousands of people across many decades, is to deny the political grounding of the situation, and to focus instead on the surface stereotypes, misconceptions and superficial dramatization, as routinely put across in the media that Hamilton must have been inspired by.

In so doing, Hamilton’s paintings of the Troubles, especially the triptych, Citizen, State and Subject of the late 1980s and early 1990s, are very simplistic, and shallow in their understanding of the subject matter. In these works, Hamilton presents three stereotypical images of the groups involved, reducing a long and extremely complex armed struggle between the British state, the Republican movement and the Unionist movement in Northern Ireland, to a sort of trailer for an action movie.

In The Citizen, (1981 – 1983), for example, Hamilton represents the Republican movement with a single figure: a ‘blanket man’ - a bearded prisoner protesting the state giving IRA detainees criminal rather than political status. In that protest, prisoners refused to wear prison clothes, or to wash or cooperate in any way with the prison guards, protesting the humiliation they had been forced to endure by smearing excrement on the prison walls and, eventually, going on hunger strikes also. To reduce that situation, and the whole conflict, to this slightly ridiculous image, (and a few other similar images of IRA prisoners, who all look alike) is extremely misleading. Firstly, no effort whatsoever is taken to put the situation, or this vapid looking individual, into any context, political or otherwise. One would not guess, from this, that not all Republicans were prisoners, or in the Provisional IRA (the paramilitary wing), rather than in the political party Sinn Fein, or one of the other Republican groups. Secondly, it is difficult to think, from this picture that the Republicans were real people at all, given the caricature of the prisoner, with a blurred face, gormless expression, and somehow effeminate character, with the swirling patterns on the wall, the long hair curled neatly at the bottom, and the prison blanket looking like a shawl.

The painting in this series depicting the British state (The state, 1993) shows another stereotype: a young, fearful soldier, looking rather innocent (the pale, mime artist face paint, perhaps) in spite of the machine gun strapped to him. As with The Citizen, the subject of the painting looks like a doll, in a puppet show version of The Armed Struggle. Also in this vein, The Subject, (1988 – 1990), presents a Loyalist in the theatrical pomp of his marching outfit, managing to show the Unionist side as King-like and upstanding, despite the fact that this faction, too, was armed, and carried out at least as many bombings and murders as the Provisional IRA (given that it was a conflict fought by two sides – three, if the British state are considered separate to the Loyalists, which is itself ambiguous, given that the Loyalists and the state infiltrated and collaborated with one another; it was not a clear-cut conflict). 

Had Hamilton wanted to give a more balanced view of the situation, he might have also used these images and ideas: the Unionists planting bombs, the Republicans marching, the Civil Rights movement protesting peacefully, the various massacres that went on at the hands of all groups, including the British army. The spies infiltrating domestic lives, the police standing back as Catholics were burnt out of their homes, and the way in which Republicans took refuge in Paris, went to training camps in Libya, and trained FARC in Colombia. There was so much going on, and many more people involved, than these three stereotypes. Furthermore, to represent them as three distinct individuals seems strange: these groups were surely divided, but conflict (and peace processes) are about integration, clashing personalities and ideas, and entanglement as much as they are about distance.

Hamilton has depicted the conflict in Northern Ireland, then, in the most simplistic and misleading terms: why? If we understand Hamilton’s paintings and art more generally as a history of how the public saw the world, then these works make more sense. He was depicting what the public saw, how they understood the conflict, and implicitly, how the conflict was communicated and depicted through propaganda. These are the players in a political spectacle and propaganda performance, not the reality. As with his other paintings on pop culture, we see a montage of what people saw through television and magazines, and newspapers, which is obviously artificial by nature.

Hamilton’s work, therefore, is interesting and valuable (aside from his technical brilliance) as a visual history of what the public saw and how political events (and culture more generally) were understood. It is a testament to how domestic and international events, in politics and otherwise, were over-simplified and distorted by the media and public consuming it, to become mere entertainment. Whether Hamilton truly understood this or also went in for the interpretations of events that he witnessed via the media, is unclear, but whether intentionally or not, he has left an artistic legacy that is also a treasure trove of primary historical sources, and a history of how the British public saw the world.

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