More on political art

blogged recently about the effectiveness of political art – thoughts that were stirred by the Richard Hamilton exhibition currently at the Serpentine Gallery in London.

Here are some more musings…

The problem with “protest art” is that its power often lessens not only as news reels roll on but as artistic tastes change. Hamilton has been called the “father of Pop Art”: he was doing it in the early 1950s ten years before Warhol started doing it in America. This is one of his best-known Pop Art works:

Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? (1956)

But Pop Art has saturated urban life – or my perception of it, at least – for so many years now that it is near powerless. I felt a little bit irritated but mainly bored going round the Tate Modern’s Pop Life exhibition last autumn: I’ve simply had enough of it.

I was surprised, then, to find Hamilton’s 1960-70s Swingeing London series, now on show in the Serpentine Gallery, so arresting still. The paintings depict Mick Jagger and Hamilton’s art dealer Robert Fraser handcuffed together in the back of a police car after a drugs raid, and he made them from a photograph of the pair taken by a journalist on the scene.

The “repeated image” has since been done to death (just think of those Warhol spin-offs).  But somehow in Swingeing London it works.

Swingeing London 67 (1968)

[working drawing; ink and gouache on photo]

Swingeing London 67 (1968-9)

[screenprint on canvas, acrylic and collage]

Swingeing London III (1972)

[screenprint and collage]

A strong sweet smell of incense (a) (1972)


Though Hamilton says things like “the picture created itself”, he does a lot with the graphic he inherits. In Swingeing London bits of basic information were missing: Jagger’s hand held up to shield his face had been whitened out in the original, hastily-snapped photograph, so when making the painting Hamilton had to go back to his sketchbook and draw a friend’s hand, from life.

This slow abstraction of an image – which occurs when its versions are seen in succession – points to the slippery unreliability of a story told through the media. (One could, I imagine, achieve a fast abstraction – a speeded-up, flick-book mutation – by running the length of the Serpentine’s West gallery, head turned 90-degrees towards the row of Swingeing Londons on the wall. But that would not be considered good gallery behaviour.)


Hamilton’s friend, the Dada artist Marcel Duchamp said that a work of art will change very rapidly. It will begin to look different (the fading of pigment, or weathering of a sculpture) and to be consumed and interpreted differently.

Interestingly, the works in Modern Moral Matters that make comment on this process are the ones that retain most power. By addressing very the transmission and reception of a message (textual and graphic), these works transcend the narrow, best-before realm of much political art.

I doubt that Hamilton’s bland portrait of Tony Blair, Shock and Awe, made 2007-08, will stir the imaginations of viewers in 50 years time in the same way as his 1988-90 series of depictions of an anonymous Orangeman might.

The latter are simply more interesting to look at.

Shock and Awe (2007-8)

[Hewlett-Packard inkjet print on HP Premium canvas]


The Apprentice Boy (1988)

[Dye transfer]

The subject (1988-90)

[oil on canvas]

The Orangeman (1990)

[Offset lithograph in 5 colours, with hand-applied Humbrol enamel]

~ by Griselda Murray Brown on March 26, 2010.

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