When Richard Hamilton died aged 89 in September 2011 he had been planning a major exhibition of recent works conceived specifically for the National Gallery. The London-born painter and printmaker was the godfather of British Pop Art, and with his 1956 collage Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? he set in motion a movement that was to be secured in the annals of history by his students at the Royal College of Art; students that included David Hockney and Peter Blake. This new exhibition traces a path through his later career up to his unfinished final and unseen work Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu – a painting in three parts.
The major painting, based on Balzac’s short story of the same name (translated as The Unknown Masterpiece), has a shadow that hangs over this entire show. Beginning in the 1980s until Hamilton’s death, these are works that are anchored by the female nude, interior settings and single-point perspective. Starting with themes of beauty and desire, the interest in interior space and perspective further iterates Hamilton’s influence in the Renaissance and Classical.
These are beautiful works, and ones that will live long in the memory. Hamilton (no stranger to iconic images, having also created the cover to The White Album by The Beatles) shows that even in his final works there is the desire to push pop past where it is stuck – in the mire of the ephemeral. But Hamilton was astute and as much as an admirer of Pop as we all are, saying in a letter from 1957 "Pop Art is: popular, transient, expendable, low-cost, mass-produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous, and Big Business". This show just goes to demonstrate how his international reputation as one of the twentieth century’s greatest artists remains justly deserved.
Richard Hamilton: The Late Works is at the National Gallery until 13 January 2013.