- Richard Hamilton
Fig. 1 Kent State (1970)
Richard Hamilton (1922-2011) was a British artist and art commentator. He was a co-founder of the Independent Group in 1956, a collection of people working in various media (including painting and architecture). The group was interested in technology and contemporary culture (Hamilton, 2003: 742), and Hamilton exhibited work which led directly to the term ‘Pop art’ in Britain. Hamilton saw pop art as a way of appropriating the subjects of popular culture and mass media, into the business of fine art, and was necessary if the artist was to avoid becoming redundant (Hamilton, 2003:743).
Other writers such as Lawrence Alloway had similar views. Alloway fought against the idea of artistic elites, and championed the ideas and art of the masses. He believed that the industrial revolution had increased the importance of the masses (the working class?), and that rapid changes in popular culture and popular art forms were better descriptions of life than the more conservative and academic artistic elite.
He directly criticised Clement Greenberg over his use of the word Kitsch to describe ‘a mass art which was destined for ‘those who are insensible to the values of genuine culture.’ (Alloway. 2003: 715). He thought the ‘rejection of the mass produced arts is not, as critics think, a defence of culture but an attack on it’. (Alloway, 2003: 717).
Within this context of mass culture Hamilton produced art from photographs, paintings, and reproduction techniques such as printing and lithography. His ideas drew upon mass media such as newspapers, magazines, TV and advertisements. Fig. 1 shows a print (one of 5000) based on a photograph that Hamilton took whilst watching TV news. It depicts a shooting of a university student by the national guard, during an anti-war demonstration in the USA. Hamilton thought it was a powerful image and developed it further (Tate online, n.d).
The artist described the many routes and processes through which the original information had passed in order to arrive at the final prints. This involved a cine camera (at the scene), taking chaotic and shaky footage, satellite broadcast by the USA, UK TV station broadcast, electrons in Hamilton’s TV screen/cathode ray tube exciting the pixcels into different amounts and colours of light (ref). Then, once the artist took the picture of the TV screen, it was transformed additionally through a long process of mechanical reproductions into the final prints. This included the use of a process camera to transfer several different images into different patterns on 13 nylon grids. Each grid was used via the process of print screening, to transfer 15 layers of differently arranged and coloured transparent paint onto each final print paper (2 grids were used twice) (Tate online, n.d).
Fig 1. Shows an image which is both real and abstract to a degree. It is still recognisably a picture of a person who is lying prone, with others around them. The print is in a format which suggests the average TV screen, and the grid of the screen is detectable within the image- echos of the original circumstances when Hamilton first engaged with the scene. However, the complexity of the information transmission process has caused a loss of some information and a consequent blurring and fuzziness. This has been augmented by the overlapping of different coloured transparencies which, at the edges, have given a feeling of movement- almost reinstating the life of the original footage. Despite this ghostly appearance, the wounds are powerfully described using a very vivid red to suggest blood. During the transformation this image has become less like a photograph, and much more artistic, more colourful, subtle, and painterly.
It is interesting to analyse this work in terms of both the artists feelings and those of the thinker Walter Benjamin. The original subject here was a violent act against a student protester. The authentic object from Benjamin’s point of view was probably the original footage on cine camera. This scene, viewed through the camera lens by the photographer alone may have contained characteristics of the immediate shock and chaos felt by all involved. This usefully corresponds to Benjamin’s aura of the original (Benjamin, 1999: 76). Hamilton described the process of change starting at his camera,
‘In spite of the many transmogrifications, what’s left always has a kind of validity. So every change that I have made, so long as my hand didn’t come into it, and as long as I didn’t tamper with it in a physical way, had its own authenticity’ (tate online, n.d)
This is a classic restatement of Benjamin’s discussion that process reproduction (as opposed to manual reproduction) does not destroy authenticity completely (Benjamin, 1999: 73-4). Benjamin also states that the loss of aura involves both things becoming closer physically and humanly, and a loss of uniqueness of an object (Benjamin, 1999:75). This too is applicable to the violent scene which Hamilton saw on his TV screen that night. The loss of aura through transmission to another person, is also accompanied by a reactivation of something else- not tradition, something different (Benjamin, 1999: 74). Hamilton was shocked by the scene- but no doubt it did not make his heart race and his skin crawl, as it might have done to the camera operator ( perhaps the true presence of the aura here).However he was moved to highlight the political aspects via his artistic method. His process transformed the scene for a different audience, an artistic one – one perhaps more ostensibly ‘cultured’, powerful, and political than many TV consumers.
Fig. 2 Grauwald (2008)
Gerhard Richter (b.1932) is an artist who has worked in a whole variety of different styles, but at times has seemed obsessed with both photographs and painting. He, and his thoughts on these disciplines seem a little enigmatic, sometimes inconsistent, and perhaps ‘melodramatic’.
In ‘Notes 1964-65’ he seems to turn the thinking of certain writers on it’s head. For example he believes in the precision of the photograph (Richter, 2003: 757), but in stark contrast to Brik, who believes in the supremacy of the photograph as a record, over the painterly and artistic progress (Brik, 2003: 473), Richter states that the photo is meaningless as a record of reality (Richter, 2003: 759). And yet, Richter also sees that photos have taken on religious overtones, with people using pictures of family or friends in quasi- religious ways (Richter, 2003: 757). By acknowledging this he acknowledges that photos have a religious or ‘magic’ characteristic which Walter Benjamin believes to be a sign of authenticity (Benjamin, 2003: 76). This seems absurd if the subject is indeed meaningless.
Richter’s work almost universally uses photographs as a source material, but the emphasis is on the painting process and the materials he uses. He seems to be making a firm statement for the supremacy of the painting (the object) over the photograph (the subject). He uses the photograph simply to suggest artistic elements to him, all that interests him are ‘ the grey areas, the passages and the tonal sequences, the pictorial spaces, overlaps and interlockings.’ (Richter, 2003: 759). In fact it seems that if he had the power simply to imagine such elements, he would simply paint abstracts from his imagination.
Fig 2 shows one of the artists ‘painted over photographs’. This seems to suggest painting’s supremacy over the photo in several ways. Firstly paint is placed directly on top of the photo, a very physical and painterly sign of dominance. Secondly the photograph, of a wood, has been obscured by the paint till it is almost unrecognisable- as a photo. Furthermore, the grey paint is monochrome and hence less real compared to the colours of the source photo- which emphasises paint- over photography (and Brik’s faithful camera reproduction (Brik, 2003:471)). Even the title Grauwald (Greywood) puts paint and the monochrome grey rather clumsily and surprisingly before the more familiar call to reality contained in the word Wald (wood).
This artist works between the borders of science and art. She is a research fellow at Sussex university and investigates the Neurophysiology of Lucid Dreaming, and her own personal sleep consciousness (Haill, 2016 a.). Her installation ‘Sleep cycles’ includes several different objects. Fig.3 and 4 show part of the artwork.
Fig. 3 Sleep cycles (2016) i.
Fig 3 shows a digital representation of the brainwaves (The EEG-electroencephalogram) recorded during a subject’s vivid dream, superimposed on a weighty book. The artist has said that the wave pattern indicated light REM sleep, close to waking. The waves shown include some corresponding to rapid eye movement, and a dream in which the subject recalled riding a unicorn along a beach (Haill, 2016 b.).
I find the artistic impression of fig. 3 to be rather weak however. It does not give me a palpable pleasurable feeling which I get when I like art or music, be it modern or traditional. This is a strong litmus test for me, although within this test may lurk the problems of personal prejudice and/or laziness in my artistic response. The juxtaposition of the old and new is certainly striking though.
I do think the new potential for art to be expressed using physical manifestations of our thoughts (both conscious and subconscious- previously little known to us), is massively powerful. This artist is interested in exactly what scientists are interested in- with a different artistic slant. The revolution in psychology and psychiatry has involved both it’s beginnings in the subconscious and ‘the interpretation of dreams’ by Sigmund Freud, but latterly a drive to connect thoughts with physically identifiable entities- whether EEG waves or the status of anatomical areas of the brain.
The use of advanced imaging such as MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) is a modern modality of ‘seeing’- not with white light (as in human vision), nor using X-rays (as through X-ray pictures- which the artist Francis Bacon was interested in), but with quite different physical magnetic waves. It is a continuation of the scientist’s urge to visualise with increasing resolution and power, and the use of these modalities for recreation and learning in art is intriguing. These possibilities of vision are extensions of the idea discussed by Benjamin, that the camera and it’s photograph introduced us to ‘unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses….’ (Benjamin, 1999: 78).
Fig. 4 Sleep cycles (2016) iiI
Returning to the installation, Fig. 4 shows a second part and includes rolls of pianola paper, several antique-looking books, and a 14 million year old rock fragment in two hemispheres contained within a glass jar, which has an extinguished candle attached, and a trail of hardened melted wax. The rock sections look like a dissected brain to the novice. The candle, the rock, and perhaps also the pianola, are interesting objects from the perspective of physical manifestation of duration and a physical process which is nevertheless ‘nebulous’. The wax trail illustrates the life of the burnt candle, the different rock areas perhaps the duration of the physical processes which formed them; even the pianola paper translates something physical (marks on the page) into a different form (sound and music). Perhaps these objects reference the idea of capturing the physical trail of a nebulous thought or dream?
Fig. 1 Hamilton, R. Kent State (1970) [screenprint on paper]. Online at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/hamilton-kent-state-p77043 [accessed 16th February 2017]
Fig. 2 Richter, G. Grauwald (2008) [Lacquer on colour photograph]. Online at: https://www.gerhard-richter.com/en/art/overpainted-photographs/grauwald-79/12108-grauwald-16544/?&categoryid=79&p=1&sp=32 [accessed 16th February 2017]
Fig. 3 and 4. Haill, L. Sleepcycles (2016) [installation]. Online at: https://lucianahaill.wordpress.com/sleepcycles/ [accessed 16th February 2017]
Alloway, L. (2003) . ‘The Arts and the Mass Media’ 1958 In Harrison,C. and Wood,P. (eds). Art in Theory 1900-2000. Oxford. Blackwell Publications. p. 715-717
Benjamin, W.(1999) ‘The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’ in In visual culture: a reader. Evans, J and Hall, S (eds.). London. SAGE Publications. p. 72-8
Brik, O. (2003) . ‘Photography versus Painting’ 1926 In Harrison,C. and Wood,P. (eds). Art in Theory 1900-2000. Oxford. Blackwell Publications. p. 470-473
Haill, L (2016 a) ‘Sleepcycles’ online at: https://lucianahaill.wordpress.com/digital-artworks/ [accessed 16th February 2017]
Haill, L (2016 b) ‘Technology is not neutral’ online at: http://technologyisnotneutral.com/LucianaHaill [accessed 16th February 2017]
Hamilton, R. (2003) . ‘For the Finest Art, Try Pop’ 1961 In Harrison,C. and Wood,P. (eds). Art in Theory 1900-2000. Oxford. Blackwell Publications. p. 742-743.
Richter , G. (2003) . ‘Notes 1964-1965’ In Harrison,C. and Wood,P. (eds). Art in Theory 1900-2000. Oxford. Blackwell Publications. p. 757-760
Tate online, (no date). The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, online at : http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/hamilton-kent-state-p77043 [accessed 16th February 2017]