Saturday, September 17, 2011

Soft pink landscape

Earlier this week I was sad to read Waldemar Januszczak tweet 'Oh no, Richard Hamilton died this morning. That is a HUGE loss. Probably Britain's most important post-war artist.'  But, as he went on to say, 'Richard Hamilton was working on a big touring retrospective when he died. So at least there is that to look forward to.' Back in 1992 I went to a sizable retrospective at the Tate Gallery and have just been re-reading the catalogue. This reminded me that five years before his famous collage, Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing?, Hamilton was helping to make large map-models of New Towns (Harlow, Basildon and Speke) for the Festival of Britain's Exhibition of Architecture, Town Planning and Building Research.  There is a small black and white photograph of one of these in the catalogue (like a Ghost Box album cover), where it is contrasted with Landscape (1965-6).  This later work is mixed media added to an enlarged postcard image of the South Downs - panoramic landscape as a 'self-reflexive, game-playing switching of representational codes, rather than as a mimetic, miniaturised simulation of the new Socialist Britain.'

In the early sixties Hamilton was struck by a new advertising campaign for Andrex toilet paper that featured photographs of girls posed in a forest glade.  He described the scene: 'Nature is beautiful.  Pink from a morning sun filters through a tissue of autumn leaves.  Golden shafts gleam through the the perforated vaulting of the forest to illuminate a stage set-up for the Sunday supplement voyeur.'  It is a masturbatory fantasy: 'the woodland equipped with every convenience.  A veil of soft-focus vegetation screens the peeper from the sentinel.  Poussin?  Claude?  No, more like Watteau in its magical ambiguity.'  In Soft pink landscape (1971-2) he reproduces this scene in misty paint, as if seen through half-closed eyes, with a roll of Andrex placed on the ground.

In 1975 Hamilton exhibited Andrex-inspired work at the Serpentine Gallery along with other landscape views derived from postcards.  Some of these show Miers, the French spa noted for the laxative properties of its waters.  There were also nine pastel images of sunsets, each with a giant turd in the foreground.  One further view was of sunrise over Cadaqués with a turd blotting out its church, and Hamilton linked this with Jung's account of a dream he had: 'the cathedral, the blue sky, God sits on his throne, high above the world - and an enormous turd falls upon the sparkling new roof, shatters it, and breaks the walls of the cathedral asunder.'  Hamilton's interest in the Andrex adverts continued and in 1980 he completed Soft blue landscape (the cover of the Tate's 1992 exhibition catalogue, below, shows a detail from this painting, omitting the toilet roll).  It was at this point that Hamilton discovered the rather surprising identity of an artist who had actually worked on the original 1960s Andrex campaign... Bridget Riley.

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